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Kuwait

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam to be the religion of the state but declares freedom of belief is “absolute.” It declares the state will protect the freedom to practice one’s religion, provided such practice does not conflict with established customs, public policy, or morals. The constitution declares sharia to be a main source of legislation and all individuals to be equal before the law regardless of religion. Defamation of the three Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity), publication or broadcast of material the government deems offensive to religious groups, and practices the government finds inconsistent with Islamic law are prohibited by law. In July the National Assembly passed legislation allowing the creation of separate courts for Shia Muslims for cases pertaining to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. In April the government registered The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ). The government prosecuted numerous individuals for remarks deemed religiously offensive, mostly for comments made online, and sentenced some to prison terms. The government continued to appoint and pay the salaries of Sunni imams and provide the full basic text for weekly sermons preached at Sunni mosques. It did not exercise the same oversight of Shia imams. The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs (MAIA) fined, reprimanded, or suspended several Sunni imams for giving sermons perceived as politically motivated, insulting to other religious groups, and violating the national unity law. MAIA organized several courses for Sunni imams promoting tolerance and countering radicalization, and in October it announced the creation of a committee to monitor calls for extremism on social media. Minority religious groups said they could worship in private spaces without government interference provided they did not disturb their neighbors or violate laws regarding assembly and proselytizing. Members of most non-Abrahamic faiths and unregistered churches were not able to marry in the country. The government continued to provide added security at religious sites to all recognized non-Sunni religious groups. It required all religious communities to conduct religious events indoors. Most minority religious groups reported a continued lack of facilities for worship and difficulty obtaining permission to construct new facilities. The government did not accredit any religious schools or permit Shia religious training within the country, notwithstanding an increased need for qualified judges to staff the newly-approved Shia personal status courts. The Ministry of Education continued to ban or censor instructional materials referring to the Holocaust or Israel. Some Shia leaders continued to report discrimination in clerical and public sector employment.

Individuals continued to face societal pressure against conversion from Islam; some citizens who converted outside the country said their families harassed them because of their conversion. Hotels, stores, and businesses continued to mark non-Islamic holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali. News media continued to publish information about the celebrations of religious holidays, including material on the religious significance of Christmas. Some Muslim clerics continued to express disapproval on social media of the celebration of non-Islamic holidays and called for more government action to restrict public expression of these holidays. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reported two instances during the year of individuals making public statements that perpetuated negative stereotypes of Jews.

In meetings with senior MAIA officials, senior U.S. embassy officials discussed the importance of promoting tolerance, including for members of minority religious groups. They noted positively MAIA’s registration of the Church of Jesus Christ and encouraged the government to take the same step with other unregistered religious groups. Embassy officials underscored the importance of places of worship for all faiths, regardless of their registration status, and relayed concerns from the Hindu community about their inability to cremate their dead. In December the Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials hosted an annual event for representatives of officially recognized non-Muslim faiths to discuss how government policies were affecting their groups. A senior embassy official and other embassy staff also hosted a roundtable in May at which leaders of non-Abrahamic faiths discussed their communities’ needs. Senior embassy officials attended religious events throughout the year and discussed issues related to religious tolerance and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.0 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The Public Authority for Civil Information (PACI), a local government agency, reports there are 1.4 million citizens and 3.3 million noncitizens. The national census does not distinguish between Shia and Sunni Muslims. PACI estimates approximately 70 percent of citizens are Sunni Muslims, while the remaining 30 percent are Shia Muslims (including Ahmadi and Ismaili Muslims, whom the government counts as Shia). Community leaders have indicated there are 290 Christian citizens and a handful of Baha’i citizens. There are no known Jewish citizens.

According to information from PACI released in 2018, 64 percent of expatriates are Muslim, 26 percent Christian, and 10 percent from non-Abrahamic faiths. Sources in various noncitizen communities state that approximately 5 percent of the expatriate Muslims are Shia, while Buddhists and Hindus account for half of the non-Abrahamic faith population. Informal estimates by members of different faiths indicate there are approximately 250,000 Hindus, 25,000 Bohra Muslims, 10,000-12,000 Sikhs, 7,000 Druze, and 400 Baha’is.

While some geographic areas have higher concentrations of either Sunnis or Shia, the two groups are distributed quite uniformly throughout most of the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the religion of the state and the freedom of belief to be “absolute.” It provides for state protection of the freedom to practice all religions, provided such practice is “in accordance with established customs, and does not conflict with public policy or morals.”

The constitution declares sharia to be a main source of legislation and all individuals to be equal before the law regardless of religion. It declares the emir shall be Muslim (the emir and ruling family are Sunni) and the state shall safeguard the heritage of Islam. The Higher Advisory Committee on Completion of the Application of Islamic Sharia Provisions in the Amiri Diwan announced in November 2017 it had disbanded after achieving its goals.

The law states apostates lose certain legal rights, including to inherit property from Muslim relatives or spouses, but it does not specify any criminal penalty. If a Muslim man married to a Muslim woman converts from Islam, his existing marriage is annulled. If he is married to a non-Muslim woman and converts from Islam, the marriage continues to be valid. If a Muslim woman married to a Muslim man converts to another Abrahamic faith (Christianity or Judaism), the marriage is not automatically annulled, but the Muslim husband may request an annulment. If a Muslim woman married to a Muslim man converts to a non-Abrahamic faith, the marriage is automatically annulled.

The law prohibits the defamation of the three Abrahamic religions and denigration of Islamic and Judeo-Christian religious figures within accepted Islamic orthodoxy (e.g., prophets mentioned in the Quran or companions of Muhammad), and prescribes a punishment of up to 10 years in prison for each offense.

A national unity law prohibits “stirring sectarian strife,” promoting the supremacy of one religious group, instigating acts of violence based on the supremacy of one group, or promoting hatred or contempt of any group. Violations of this law by individuals are punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of 10,000 to 100,000 Kuwaiti dinars (KD) ($33,000-$330,000). Repeated crimes carry double penalties. If a group or an organization violates the law, it could have its license to operate revoked temporarily or permanently, and it could be fined up to KD 200,000 ($660,000). Noncitizens convicted under this law are also subject to deportation.

The law allows citizens to file criminal charges against anyone they believe has defamed any of the three recognized Abrahamic religions or harmed public morals.

The law criminalizes publishing and broadcasting content, including on social media, which the government deems offensive to religious “sects” or groups, providing for fines ranging from KD 10,000 to 200,000 ($33,000-$660,000) and up to seven years’ imprisonment.

There is no promulgated process outlining what steps religious groups must take to register with the government. Groups must navigate this process without guidance from government offices. Although all religious groups must apply in writing for a license from their municipality to establish an official place of worship and to gain full benefits from the central government, there are no fixed criteria for an application to be approved. To obtain a license, groups must first receive approval by the local municipality for their place of worship. The municipality then turns to MAIA for its “opinion” on the application for a worship space (MAIA indicates that it does not have the authority to give formal registration of the building). MAIA then issues a certificate that lists board members for the organization, making the religious group a legal entity. Once this certificate is granted, further approvals are required by the Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA) and the Ministry of Interior (MOI). Once these ministries give these approvals, the municipality must grant the final license, which requires the community leaders to obtain written permission from all the immediate neighbors occupying the properties around the proposed place of worship. The government often provides applicants no information about the status of their pending registration or if they have been rejected at any point. There is no recourse to appeal the decision; it is considered a “sovereign act” and cannot be challenged in court.

The officially registered and licensed Christian churches in the country are: National Evangelical Church of Kuwait (NECK) (Protestant); Roman Catholic; Greek Catholic (Melkite); Coptic Orthodox; Armenian Orthodox; Greek Orthodox; Anglican; and the Church of Jesus Christ. In April the government officially recognized the Church of Jesus Christ. There are no officially recognized synagogues, and according to MAIA, no application has ever been submitted for one. The government does not recognize any non-Abrahamic religions. Non-recognized religious groups include Hindus, Sikhs, Druze, Bohra Muslims, and Baha’is.

A religious group with a license to establish a place of worship may hire its own staff, sponsor visitors to the country, open bank accounts, and import texts needed for its congregation. Nonregistered religious groups do not have these rights, may not purchase property or sponsor workers, and must rely on volunteers from within their community for resources (although some registered religious groups have agreed to assist nonregistered groups in these matters).

The law prohibits practices the government deems inconsistent with Islamic law, including anything the government deems to be sorcery or black magic, which under the penal code constitutes “fraud and deception” and carries a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both.

The law does not specifically prohibit proselytizing, but individuals proselytizing may be prosecuted under laws criminalizing contempt of religion.

The law prohibits eating, drinking, and smoking in public between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan, including for non-Muslims, with a prescribed maximum penalty of up to KD 100 ($330) and/or one month’s imprisonment.

It is illegal to possess or import pork products and alcohol. Importing alcohol carries a penalty of up to 10 years’ imprisonment; consuming alcohol may result in a fine of up to KD 1,000 ($3,300).

Islamic religious instruction is mandatory at all levels for all Muslim students in both public and private schools with one or more Muslim students enrolled, regardless of whether the student is a citizen. Non-Muslim students are not required to attend these classes. The law prohibits organized religious education in public high schools for faiths other than Islam. All Islamic education courses are based on Sunni Islam.

Religious courts administer personal status law dealing with issues of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. For non-Muslims, courts apply Sunni sharia in matters of personal status and family law. Noncitizens not belonging to the three recognized Abrahamic religions are also subject to sharia if family matters are taken to court. According to the law, sharia governs inheritance for all residents regardless of their religious affiliation if the case is brought to court.

Courts may follow Shia jurisprudence in matters of personal status and family law for Shia Muslims at the first instance and appellate levels. If the case proceeds beyond the appellate level to the court of cassation, the case may be adjudicated via Sunni personal status law. In July the National Assembly passed the Shia Personal Status Law, which allows for the creation of separate courts for Shia Muslims for cases pertaining to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. According to local sources, these courts have only three judges, none of whom has a background in Shia jurisprudence. The law also allows personal status cases to be adjudicated through the court of cassation under Shia doctrine. An independent Shia waqf (trust) administers Shia religious endowments. Cases are assigned to either Sunni or Shia judges based on the religious affiliation of the man. If a man is married to a non-Muslim woman, the husband’s religious practice is followed. If a couple is from one of the registered churches, the settlement offered by the church may be taken into consideration; however, if the dispute is not settled, Sunni sharia is applied. Local sources suggest that the passage of the Shia Personal Status Law has increased the need for Shia religious training facilities to help staff the courts with qualified judges.

The law forbids, and the state does not recognize, marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men, but Muslim men may marry women of other recognized Abrahamic faiths. The law requires the raising of children of such marriages in their father’s faith, and the father’s religion governs the settlement of marital disputes. Muslim marriage cases are heard in Sunni or Shia religious courts, depending on whether the marriage certificate is Sunni or Shia. A Shia notary must authenticate a Shia marriage certificate. Non-Muslim divorce and child custody cases are heard in Sunni religious courts. Christian couples who are part of a registered church may marry and divorce following their religious customs, with local authorities and courts recognizing their documents. Except for Hindus and Sikhs of Indian nationality, who may marry at the Embassy of India, members of non-Abrahamic faiths and nonregistered churches may not marry legally in the country but may have their foreign wedding certificates recognized. Citizens who are members of the Baha’i Faith may marry abroad and petition the court to recognize their marriage.

If a religious group wishes to purchase land, a citizen must be the primary buyer, and must submit a request for approval to the local municipal council, which allocates land at its discretion. Citizens may also rent or donate land to religious groups.

The law prohibits the naturalization of non-Muslims but allows male citizens of any religion to transmit citizenship to their descendants. Female citizens, regardless of religion, are unable to transmit nationality to their children.

An individual’s religion is not included on passports or national identity documents, except for birth and marriage certificates, on which it is mandatory. On birth certificates issued to Muslims, there is no distinction between Sunni and Shia. Members of non-Abrahamic faiths are not able to list their religion on their birth certificate and a dash (-) is denoted in place of their religion.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

The government pursued several cases against individuals for violating the national unity law and fomenting sectarianism. In March journalist Abdallah Al-Hadlaq was sentenced to three years in prison for two tweets from 2018 that the court concluded offended Shia Muslims. In September the government filed slander charges against a female member of the Kuwaiti ruling family for insulting Shia Muslims in the country.

In May a criminal court sentenced a Lebanese television presenter to a year in jail with labor and fined her KD 5,000 ($16,500) for insulting God in a program broadcast on a local satellite television channel. A court of appeals overturned the verdict in July. In July several individuals were arrested for making offensive remarks about God and the Prophet Muhammad in an online video. That same month, the director of juvenile prosecution announced that an underage noncitizen would be remanded for 10 days to a social welfare home over allegations of blasphemy. In August a court of appeals upheld the conviction of a blogger accused of contempt for Islam and fined him KD 5,000 ($16,500) because of a tweet the court found derogatory and offensive.

In January Kuwait University law professor and anticensorship activist Fatima Al-Matar fled to the United States with her daughter after she was referred to the public prosecutor for a tweet she posted in October 2018 that was deemed blasphemous, derogatory, and offensive to religion. In March the Court of Cassation upheld verdicts by the Court of Appeals which fined Salafist cleric Othman al-Khamees and Shia Cleric Hussain al-Matouq KD 20,000 ($66,000) each for “promoting sectarian strife” through YouTube videos.

Although the law does not prohibit apostasy, the government continued its policy of not issuing new official documents for recording a change in religion unless the conversion was from another religion to Islam. As in previous years, some religious leaders from non-Muslim religious groups said they had not heard of any case of a Muslim desiring to change religion, while others said they would not convert a Muslim in the country. All religious leaders, regardless of faith, continued to state that their sole mission was to take care of their existing community. Most religious leaders declined to speak about conversion.

In December the Constitutional Court rejected a challenge to the ban on public eating during Ramadan.

In August press reports revealed the presence of an unregistered Sikh temple (known as “Sulaibiya Gurdwara”) in a Kuwait City warehouse, which authorities closed the same month. The temple had reportedly been operating for the previous nine years and served thousands of Indians from the Sikh community.

In accordance with MAIA policy, the government continued to vet and appoint all new Sunni imams. Media sources quoted senior MAIA officials as stating the government vetted every Sunni imam to ensure compliance with the government’s view of moderate and tolerant religious preaching. The Shia community continued to select its own clerics without government oversight.

The government continued to provide the full basic text for weekly sermons preached at Sunni mosques and to monitor these sermons. Imams could add content to the sermons but needed to ensure the text adhered to the laws on political speech and avoided stoking sectarianism. Media sources reported MAIA continued to caution imams to ensure their sermons were consistent with MAIA guidelines to refrain from discussing political issues and insulting other religions in their sermons or at any other time while under MAIA jurisdiction. MAIA required Sunni imams to send a recorded audio of their sermons to MAIA for review after the fact. MAIA also relied on reports of worshippers and others who might be dissatisfied if the imam discussed politics or insulted other faiths. Shia sources and government authorities said the government did not officially monitor Shia clerics, who were free to write their own sermons if they did not violate existing laws or instigate sectarianism. If a questionable video appeared on social media or a worshipper reported a cleric, the government investigated. Some sources, however, stated they believed the government unofficially monitored Shia clerics. According to officials at MAIA and members of the Shia community, MAIA did not monitor sermons or other activities at the husseiniyas (Shia halls for religious commemorations) or at private gatherings. In June MAIA announced it had referred the case of a Sunni imam at the Munira al-Khalid Mosque to MAIA’s committee in charge of religious professional affairs after he allegedly criticized Egypt in a sermon. In August MAIA suspended a muezzin and an expatriate Sunni imam for meddling with “political and sectarian issues.”

During the year, MAIA organized several courses for Sunni imams to make their messages more effective in promoting tolerance and countering radicalization. In March Director of the Center for the Promotion of Moderation Abdullah Al-Shuraika said the center had not received any reports of cases of youth extremism from parents since 2018. In October Al-Shuraika announced the creation of a committee specializing in monitoring extremist calls on social media and fake accounts, which Al-Shuraika said were aimed at “promoting sedition and provoking sectarianism.” In July Assistant Undersecretary of MAIA for Cultural Affairs Dawood Al-Asousi said 30 citizens who had previously adopted ISIS ideology had been “rehabilitated” after intensive programs to help them renounce extremism and to guide them back to the path of moderation and tolerance. In March MAIA announced it would organize Friday sermons and lectures with government-approved “moderate” messages in mosques of non-Arabic-speaking Muslim communities.

The government funded Sunni religious institutions, including mosques, and paid the salaries of all Sunni imams. The Shia community generally did not receive funding from the state for religious institutions and mosques. The government paid the salaries of some Shia imams; some Shia mosques requested government assistance and received funds to pay for salaries and maintenance of their facilities.

According to the government, during the year MAIA investigated three imams it considered to have made provocative statements that violated laws against harming national unity or insulting other religious groups. Disciplinary actions included temporary suspension, permanent suspension, and referrals to MAIA’s counseling committee.

Representatives of registered churches continued to state the government was generally tolerant and respectful of their faiths. The Anglican Church was allowed to build a new chapel after its previous chapel was damaged by flooding in 2018. The new chapel includes more space for worship than the previous structure. Members of non-Abrahamic faiths and unregistered churches continued to state they remained free to practice their religion in private but faced harassment and potential prosecution if they disturbed their neighbors or violated laws regarding assembly and proselytizing. They also continued to say they avoided conflict with authorities by not proselytizing or disparaging the government or other faiths. The government continued to allow such groups to operate in rented villas, private homes, or the facilities of registered churches. Many of these groups said they did not publicly advertise religious events or gatherings to avoid bringing unwanted attention to their organizations, both from the public and from government authorities. In June the Public Authority for Manpower imposed a fine of KD 100 ($330) per worker on the Roman Catholic Church for not committing to recruiting the required percentage of citizens as employees. Another church reported a total of KD 6,000 ($20,000) in fines for failure to abide by this policy.

Members of non-Abrahamic faiths and unregistered churches continued to say they experienced hardships in commemorating major religious or life events. Almost uniformly across these communities, members said they lacked sufficient religious facilities and religious leaders or clerics to lead prayers, bless births and marriages, and conduct appropriate death rituals.

In many cases, members of these religious groups stated they resolved conflict internally within their communities rather than take legal action in the courts where they would be subject to sharia.

The government continued to require religious groups to obtain licenses from their respective municipalities for religious celebrations. Authorities retained the right to withdraw the license of any husseiniya not complying with the municipality’s rules. Minority religious communities continued to state they tried to keep a low profile and did not request permission for public celebrations from authorities, which they presumed would be rejected if they applied for it.

The MOI continued to provide added security and protection at religious sites for all recognized non-Sunni religious groups. Religious leaders of Abrahamic faiths continued to report that the government, citing security concerns, kept in place the ban on outdoor religious observances instituted following an ISIS bombing of a Shia mosque in 2015 that killed 27 persons. In April MOSA rejected applications submitted by two Islamic charity organizations to hold religious awareness campaigns in public places, including public gardens, beaches, and malls.

The government continued to require the Shia community to conduct Ashura activities inside closed structures rather than at outdoor locations. The government did not permit public reenactments of the martyrdom of Hussein or public marches in commemoration of Ashura. The government continued to station security forces outside some Sunni mosques and all Shia and Christian religious venues during times of worship throughout the year as a deterrent to possible attacks. The government also continued to provide security to Shia neighborhoods during Muharram and Ashura.

Authorities continued the government’s longstanding practice of prohibiting churches from displaying exterior signs, such as a cross or church bell.

Only private shops owned by religious organizations could legally import, display, or sell non-Islamic religious literature. Church leaders continued to report the government permitted registered Christian churches to import religious materials for use by their congregations under the condition that none of the content insulted Islam. Registered churches reported they were able to import religious materials in any language. Members of non-Abrahamic faiths and nonregistered churches continued to state they could import religious materials for their congregations if they brought in the materials as personal items when entering the country and did not try to sell them in public stores. Minority religious communities said they continued to be selective in the religious materials they imported and even more selective in giving access to the materials. They said they did not allow the circulation of these materials outside their congregations.

The municipality of Kuwait handled building permits and land issues for non-Abrahamic faiths and nonregistered churches. The government said it received no applications for construction of new churches from religious groups during the year. The Greek Catholic Church indicated that it had requested in April additional land near its location to accommodate more worshipers. The government said it did not receive additional requests for registrations of new groups during the year.

Shia community members reported a continued lack of facilities for worship and difficulties obtaining permission to construct new facilities, caused by the government’s delay in approving repairs to existing mosques or constructing new ones. MAIA reported there were 1,656 mosques in the country, including 32 mosques opened during the year. According to 2018 government statistics, of the 1,601 mosques existing that year, 1550 were Sunni and 51 Shia. Five new Shia mosques received permission to be built that year. A source from the Shia community said the government opened no new Shia mosques in 2019. There were 20-30 husseiniyas registered with the MOI and thousands of smaller Shia gatherings that took place in private homes.

Christian churches continue to report that government authorities did not respond to their petitions for expanding existing places of worship. Some churches said they stopped submitting such requests because the government did not respond.

Again citing security concerns, authorities stated they continued to act against unlicensed mosques. The government tasked MAIA, MOI, the municipality of Kuwait, and other agencies with finding solutions to end the use of illegal mosques. During the year, the government continued to raid makeshift mosques in remote areas and close them for operating without proper licenses. MAIA continued to operate under a mandate from the Council of Ministers to demolish unregistered mosques, stating that some of those mosques served as platforms of extremism. The demolition of these mosques continued during the year. Authorities said new unlicensed mosques continued to open. MAIA attempted to bring some underground mosques under its supervision by appointing and vetting imams, monitoring sermons, and getting them licenses through municipalities.

The Ministry of Education continued to ban or censor instructional materials, including fiction and nonfiction books and textbooks, referring to the Holocaust or Israel. The ministry permitted public schools to teach and celebrate only Islamic holidays. Members of non-Islamic faiths largely said the government did not interfere with religious instruction inside private homes and on church compounds.

According to church leaders, although most churches provided faith-based instruction for children, none of them had government-accredited church-based schools. Accreditation for church-based schools would enable students to receive religious education while fulfilling government requirements and allow school graduates to move on to higher education. The NECK repeatedly requested accreditation for its church-based school for many years, most recently in 2017, but authorities had not responded by year’s end. The Armenian Church and the Bohra Muslim community continued to operate accredited community schools in lieu of seeking accreditation as religious schools. Other groups continued to report they conducted religious studies in their places of worship.

The government continued its practice of not responding to requests to establish Shia religious training institutions. Shia Muslims had to seek religious training and education abroad. The College of Islamic Law at Kuwait University, the only institution in the country that trains imams, provided some Shia jurisprudence courses but did not permit Shia professors on its faculty.

Shia leaders continued to report that the lack of Shia imams limited their ability to staff Shia courts, causing a backlog of personal status and family cases. To address the backlog and shortage of staff, an ad hoc council the government created many years ago under the regular marital issues court to apply Shia jurisprudence continued to function. In July Member of Parliament Saleh Ashour said there was a shortage of Shia judges who could implement the new Shia Personal Status Law, and called for more to be trained. Ashour said the law was being applied through four circuit courts and at all litigation levels, including the court of cassation level.

Even though Shia make up an estimated 30 percent of the population, they remained underrepresented at all levels of government: six of 50 elected members in parliament, one of 16 cabinet members, one of six Amiri Diwan advisors, and disproportionately few senior officers in the military and police force. Shia community leaders continued to say there was a “glass ceiling” in promotions and difficulties in obtaining government jobs. Some Shia leaders said discrimination continued to prevent Shia from obtaining training for clerical positions and leadership positions in public sector organizations, including the police force and the military/security apparatus.

In February the government allowed the NGO Wathakker Center, which promotes the teachings of Sunni Islam and provides religion classes for children, to reopen after a one-year mandated closure following the 2018 sentencing of its owner, Fouad Al-Rifai. Al-Rifai was sentenced to eight years in prison with labor for posting a video inciting violence against Shia citizens and for contempt of Shia Islam through Twitter posts that contained abusive phrases against Shia Islam. In December Al-Rifai was sentenced to an additional four months in prison for similar Twitter posts insulting Shia Islam.

In January a member of parliament proposed two bills that would amend the citizenship law by removing religion as a requirement for granting Kuwaiti citizenship.

MOSA issued visas for clergy and other staff to work at licensed places of worship. The government continued to impose quotas on the number of clergy and staff of licensed religious groups entering the country but granted additional slots upon request. The government continued to require foreign leaders of unregistered religious groups to enter the country as nonreligious workers.

Media coverage included news on events and celebrations held by various Christian denominations in the country, such as Christmas services and church inauguration anniversaries attended by high-level government officials.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There continued to be societal pressure against conversion from Islam, according to minority religious leaders and citizens. Leaders and members of religious communities said they did not convert Muslims in the country. Some citizens who converted outside the country said their families harassed them due to their conversion from Islam.

Hotels, stores, and other businesses continued to mark non-Islamic holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali. During the Christmas season, Christmas trees and lights appeared in stores, malls, and homes, and Christmas music played in public places, including songs with Christian lyrics.

News media continued to print information about religious holiday celebrations, including material on the religious significance of Christmas.

Some Muslim clerics continued to express disapproval via social media of the celebration of non-Islamic holidays and called for more government action to restrict public expression of these holidays. In December the Wathakker Center tweeted an image that said, “No Christmas, do not celebrate the Holy Trinity, do not proselytize in Muslim lands.”

MEMRI reported two instances during the year of individuals making public statements that perpetuated negative stereotypes of Jews. In January singer Monia Al-Hob said on judgment day Muslims would fight Jews and there would be a special gate to hell for them. In February researcher Muhanna Hama al-Muhanna posted a video on his YouTube channel, stating Jews used human blood, especially from Christian children, in making food, and he repeated other anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Senior embassy officials continued to meet with senior MAIA officials to discuss the importance of promoting tolerance and religious freedom in the country, including for members of recognized and unrecognized minority religious groups. Embassy officials noted positively MAIA’s registration of the Church of Jesus Christ and suggested the ministry build on this action by registering other unregistered faiths. Embassy officials underscored the importance of places of worship for all faiths regardless of their registration status, and relayed concerns of the Hindu community about their inability to cremate their dead. Embassy officials raised the closure of the Sikh temple with officials of both MAIA and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stating that denial of the right to a place to worship contravenes the fundamental right to religious freedom and rights enumerated in the Kuwaiti constitution.

The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to meet with leaders and representatives of minority religious groups and with NGOs involved with religious issues to discuss the challenges religious minorities faced in their interaction with the government, such as difficulties obtaining places of worship, paying fines for not hiring citizen workers, lack of a transparent process for achieving recognition, and the inability to practice certain religious rituals, including marriage and burials. In December the Charge d’Affaires hosted an annual event for representatives of officially recognized non-Muslim faiths. The Charge spoke with each leader to learn how the government policies were affecting their groups and how the situation compared with previous years, including requests to expand existing spaces of worship and steep fines for not hiring the requisite number of citizen employees at their facilities. He underscored the embassy’s commitment to continuing to raise issues of religious freedom with the government. Embassy officials also engaged with a professor at a sharia college, and with Sunni and Shia members of parliament (including the head of the Human Rights Committee) in order to discuss the rights of religious minorities and the status of religious freedom in the country.

During the year, embassy officials and religious leaders continued to discuss the needs of the various religious groups, which continued to include more space for worship, more transparency in the registration process for new churches, and permission to obtain religious school accreditation. In May a senior embassy official and other embassy staff hosted members of unrecognized religious groups (Hindus, Sikhs, Druze, Bohra Muslims, and Baha’is) at a roundtable to discuss their communities’ needs. Senior embassy officials also continued to attend religious events throughout the year, including the observations of Ashura, Easter, Baha’u’llah’s Birth, Christmas, Diwali, and the Sikh Vaisakhi Day celebration. At these events, they discussed issues related to religious tolerance with participants and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.

Morocco

Executive Summary

According to the constitution, Islam is the religion of the state, and the state guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly. The constitution also says the state guarantees to everyone the freedom to “practice his religious affairs.” The constitution states the king holds the Islamic title “Commander of the Faithful” and that he is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of the freedom to practice religious affairs in the country. It also prohibits political parties founded on religion as well as political parties, parliamentarians, and constitutional amendments that denigrate or infringe on Islam. The law penalizes the use of enticements to convert a Muslim to another religion and prohibits criticism of Islam. In February media reported authorities closed unlicensed mosques in Casablanca, Kenitra, and Inezgane, which were operating in the homes of members of the Justice and Charity Organization (JCO), a Sunni Islamist social movement that rejects the king’s spiritual authority. In March, prior to a visit by Pope Francis, the Committee of Moroccan Christians of the unregistered Moroccan Association for Religious Rights (AMDLR/CMC) released a widely publicized letter to Pope Francis asking him to pressure the government to open investigations into what it described as systemic harassment of Christian citizens by security forces, allegations disputed by a number of local and foreign Christian leaders. Foreign clergy, because of fear of being criminally charged with proselytism, said they discouraged Christian citizens from attending their churches. Although the law allows registration of religious groups as associations, some minority religious groups reported the government rejected their registration requests. The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism. The government restricted the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam. On March 30, King Mohammed VI welcomed Pope Francis to Rabat. During the pope’s visit, the king announced that he interpreted his title “Commander of the Faithful” as “the Commander of all believers… [including] Moroccan Jews and Christians from other countries, who are living in Morocco.” In April the king launched the construction of a new Jewish cultural museum in a building that was once a school near the historic Jewish neighborhood and cemetery in Fez. On an April 14 television program, Minister of State for Human Rights and Relations of Parliament Mustapha Ramid stated that the government did not criminalize conversion from Islam, distinguishing it from the crime of “shaking” others’ faiths or attempting to convert Muslims to another religion.

Representatives of minority religious groups said fear of societal harassment, including ostracism by converts’ families, social ridicule, employment discrimination, and potential violence against them by “extremists,” were the main reasons leading them to practice their faiths discreetly. According to the 2018-2019 Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH) report, there was continued societal harassment of Shia and Shiism in the press and in Friday sermons. During Ramadan, a teenage girl eating in public was attacked by a bus driver and several young men were arrested and then released but charged a fine for smoking in public.

The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Charge d’Affaires, and other U.S. government officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance in visits with key government officials. In these meetings, U.S. government officials recognized the Moroccan government’s efforts to promote interfaith dialogue while encouraging the government to recognize the existence of all of its religious minority communities as well as establish a legal framework for non-Muslim/non-Jewish citizens to address personal legal status matters, including marriage. U.S. government officials also met with members of religious minority and majority communities, where they highlighted on a regular basis the importance of protection of religious minorities and interfaith dialogue.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 34.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate). More than 99 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, and less than 0.1 percent of the population is Shia Muslim, according to U.S. government estimates. Groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, and Baha’is.

According to Jewish community leaders, there are an estimated 3,000 to 3,500 Jews, approximately 2,500 of whom reside in Casablanca. Some citizen Christian community leaders estimate there are between 2,000 and 6,000 Christian citizens distributed throughout the country; however, the Moroccan Association of Human Rights estimates there are 25,000 Christian citizens. One media source reported that while most Christians in the country are foreigners, there are an estimated 8,000 Christian citizens and that “several thousand” citizens have converted, mostly to Protestant churches.

Foreign-resident Christian leaders estimate the foreign-resident Christian population numbers at least 30,000 Roman Catholics and an estimated 10,000 Protestants, many of whom are recent migrants from sub-Saharan Africa or lifelong residents of the country whose families have resided and worked in the country for generations but do not hold citizenship. There are small foreign-resident Anglican communities in Casablanca and Tangier. There are an estimated 3000 foreign-residents who identify as Russian and Greek Orthodox, including a small foreign-resident Russian Orthodox community in Rabat and a small foreign-resident Greek Orthodox community in Casablanca. Most foreign-resident Christians live in the Casablanca, Tangier, and Rabat urban areas, but small numbers of foreign Christians are present throughout the country, including many who are migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

Shia Muslim leaders estimate there are several thousand Shia citizens, with the largest proportion in the north. In addition, there are an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 foreign-resident Shia from Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Leaders of the Ahmadi Muslim community estimate their numbers at 600. Leaders of the Baha’i community estimate there are 350-400 members throughout the country.

BBC Arabic reports that 15 percent of the population identifies as nonreligious, up from under 5 percent in 2013.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, the country is a Muslim state, and Islam is the religion of the state. The constitution guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly, and says the state guarantees every individual the freedom to practice his or her religious affairs. The constitution states the king holds the title “Commander of the Faithful,” and he is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of the freedom to practice religious affairs in the country. The constitution prohibits the enactment of laws or constitutional amendments infringing upon its provisions relating to Islam, and also recognizes the Jewish community as an integral component of society. According to the constitution, political parties may not be founded on religion and may not denigrate or infringe on Islam. Religions other than Islam and Judaism are not recognized by the constitution or laws.

The constitution and the law governing media prohibit any individual, including members of parliament normally immune from arrest, from criticizing Islam on public platforms, such as print or online media, or in public speeches. Such expressions are punishable by imprisonment for two years and a fine of 200,000 dirhams ($20,800).

The law penalizes anyone who “employs enticements to undermine the faith” or convert a Muslim to another faith by exploiting his weakness or need for assistance, or through the use of educational, health, or other institutions and provides punishments of six months to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21-$52). The same penalties apply to anyone who intentionally interferes with religious rites or celebrations where this causes disturbances or affects the dignity of such religious acts. It also provides the right to a court trial for anyone accused of such an offense. Voluntary conversion is not a crime under the law. The law permits the government to expel summarily any noncitizen resident it determines to be “a threat to public order,” and the government has used this clause to expel foreigners suspected of proselytizing.

By law, impeding or preventing one or more persons from worshipping or from attending worship services of any religion is punishable by six months to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21-$52). The penal code states any person known to be Muslim who breaks the fast in public during the month of Ramadan without an exception granted by religious authorities is liable to punishment of six months in prison and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21-$52). Owners have discretion to keep their restaurants open during Ramadan.

The High Authority for Audiovisual Communications established by the constitution requires all eight public television stations to dedicate 5 percent of their airtime to Islamic religious content and to broadcast the Islamic call to prayer five times daily.

Sunni Muslims and Jews are the only religious groups recognized in the constitution as native to the country. A separate set of laws and special courts govern personal status matters for Jews, including functions such as marriage, inheritance, and other personal status matters. Rabbinical authorities, who are also court officials, administer Jewish family courts. Muslim judges trained in the country’s Maliki-Ashari Sunni interpretation of sharia administer the courts for personal status matters for all other religious groups. According to the law, a Muslim man may marry a Christian or Jewish woman; a Muslim woman may not marry a man of another religion unless he converts to Islam. Non-Muslims must formally convert to Islam and be permanent residents before they can become guardians of abandoned or orphaned children. Guardianship entails the caretaking of a child, which may last until the child reaches 18, but it does not allow changing the child’s name or inheritance rights, and requires maintaining the child’s birth religion, according to orphanage directors.

Legal provisions outlined in the general tax code provide tax benefits, land and building grants, subsidies, and customs exemptions for imports necessary for the religious activities of recognized religious groups (Sunni Muslims and Jews) and religious groups registered as associations (some “foreign” Christian churches). The law does not require religious groups to register to worship privately, but a nonrecognized religious group must register as an association to conduct business on behalf of the group (e.g., open and hold bank accounts, rent property, acquire land and building grants, and have access to customs exemptions for imports necessary for the religious activities) or to hold public gatherings. Associations must register with local Ministry of Interior (MOI) officials in the jurisdiction of the association’s headquarters. An individual representative of a religious group neither recognized nor registered as an association may be held liable for any of the group’s public gatherings, transactions, bank accounts, property rentals, and/or petitions to the government. The registration application must contain the name and purpose of the association; the name, nationality, age, profession, and residential address of each founder; and the address of the association’s headquarters. The constitution guarantees civil society associations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) the right to organize themselves and exercise their activities freely within the scope of the constitution. The law on associations prohibits organizations that pursue activities the government regards as “illegal, contrary to good morals, or aimed at undermining the Islamic religion, the integrity of the national territory, or the monarchical regime, or which call for discrimination.”

Many foreign-resident Christian churches (churches run by and attended by foreign residents only) are registered as associations. The Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Protestant, and Anglican Churches maintain different forms of official status. The Russian Orthodox and Anglican Churches are registered as branches of international associations through the embassies of Russia and the United Kingdom, respectively. The Protestant and Catholic Churches, whose existence as foreign-resident churches predates the country’s independence in 1956, as well as the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches, maintain a special status recognized by the government, which allows them to preserve houses of worship and assign foreign clergy.

By law, all publicly funded educational institutions must teach Sunni Islam in accordance with the teachings and traditions of the Maliki-Ashari school of Islamic jurisprudence. Foreign-run and privately funded schools have the choice of including or omitting religious instruction within the school’s curriculum. Private Jewish schools may teach Judaism.

According to the constitution, only the High Council of Ulema, a group headed and appointed by the king with representatives from all regions of the country, is authorized to issue fatwas, which become legally binding only through the king’s endorsement in a royal decree and subsequent confirmation by parliamentary legislation. Such fatwas are considered binding only on Maliki Achari Sunni Muslims. If the king or parliament declines to ratify a decision of the council, the decision remains nonbinding and unenforced.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Authorities still denied Christian citizen groups freedom of worship in churches, the right to Christian or civil marriage, and funeral services. The government does not allow Christian citizens to establish churches.

The JCO, a Sunni Islamist social movement that rejects the king’s spiritual authority, remained banned but continued to operate. It remained the largest social movement in the country despite being unregistered. The JCO continued to release press statements, hold conferences, manage internet sites, and participate in political demonstrations. According to media, there were instances in which the government prevented the organization from meeting and restricted public distribution of JCO’s published materials. On February 6, media reported authorities closed unlicensed mosques operating in the homes of JCO members in Casablanca, Kenitra, and Inezgane. According to Agence France Presse, local authorities in Casablanca stated the homes served as “places of prayer and gatherings” and were home to illegal activities.

In March the AMDLR/CMC released a widely publicized letter to Pope Francis asking him to pressure the government to open investigations into what it said was systemic harassment of Christian citizens by security forces. A number of local and foreign Christian leaders disputed the AMDLR/CMC claims that there was systemic harassment by security forces of Christian citizens. AMDLR leader Jawad El-Hamidy said that while “foreign Christians” were free to exercise their religious freedom, Moroccan converts were not and must worship in private. According to a February press report, El-Hamidy said, “There is lack of recognition of freedom of belief and an absence of legal guarantees when it comes to practicing some non-Islamic religious rituals: Morocco does not tolerate people converting to Christianity from Islam,” adding, “Christians do not possess ‘normal’ citizenship rights, and there is no political willingness to protect them.” Local citizen Christian leaders reported being closely monitored by state authorities during the pope’s visit from March 30 through 31.

Some foreign-born clergy and other community members tried to dissuade citizens from attending public worship services, for the citizens’ safety and that of the church and its members.

During the year, there were no reports of authorities prohibiting nonregistered religious groups from practicing their religion in private.

According to community leaders, Christian citizens said authorities continued to make phone or house calls to demonstrate they monitored Christian activities.

A number of religious groups reported they cooperated with authorities and occasionally informed them of planned large gatherings, for which authorities sometimes provided security.

According to religious leaders and legal scholars, the government’s refusal to allow Shia Muslim groups to register as associations continued to prevent these groups from gathering legally for public religious observations. There were no known Shia mosques. Shia representatives reported they did not attempt to register during the year because they feared security forces would harass them as had been the case in previous years.

AMDLR reapplied for registration as an association during the year. Authorities refused to accept the application, according to the head of AMDLR. A Christian group that applied to register as an association in 2018 was still awaiting a response from the MOI at year’s end.

The U.S. NGO Open Doors stated in its annual 2019 World Watch List that the penal code, which criminalizes “shaking the faith” of a Muslim, put many Christians who talked to others about their faith at risk of criminal prosecution and arrest. The NGO also stated that while the penal code provision “only punish[ed] proselytization, converts to Christianity [could] be punished in other ways, such as loss of inheritance rights and custody of their children.”

Church officials reported Christian citizens rarely attended officially recognized churches, and they discouraged them from doing so to avoid official accusations of proselytizing, which could lead to their inability to continue leading the church and its ability to provide services, and to avoid putting other priorities, such as building projects, at risk.

On August 27, authorities in the Al Houz region outside Marrakesh demolished a partially constructed installation described by its builder, German artist Olivier Bienkowski and his NGO PixelHelper, as a “memorial dedicated to the murdered Jews in Europe and standing against the persecution of minorities such as the Sinti and Romani (Eastern Europe), Muslim Uigurs (China), and gays,” after PixelHelper failed to obtain proper building permits. In media interviews, Bienkowski said he hoped to construct the first Holocaust Memorial in northern Africa for educational purposes and to memorialize forced labor camps in the nearby desert during World War II where Jews and others were confined. The government ordered Bienkowski to leave the country in August. Local authorities disputed Bienkowski’s version of events, stating the country had a “proud history” of diversity and peaceful coexistence of its various religious communities and emphasizing the lack of coordination with appropriate government offices and proper permits. According to a media report, a leader of the local Jewish community said that Bienkowski intended to harm the country by conveying a false image of it as anti-Semitic. He also said that the Jewish community in the Al Houz region welcomed the decision of the authorities to demolish the project.

The 2017 ban on the import, production, and sale of the burqa remained in effect. The MOI cited security concerns as justification for the ban. The ban did not prevent individuals from wearing burqas or making them at home for individual use. Authorities continued to prohibit anchors on national television and police and army personnel in uniform from wearing a hijab or burqa.

The MEIA remained the principal government institution responsible for shaping the country’s religious life and promoting its interpretation of Sunni Islam. It employed 2100 morchidines (male Muslim spiritual guides) and 901 morchidates (female Muslim spiritual guides) in mosques or religious institutions throughout the country. The morchidates taught religious subjects and provided counsel on a variety of matters, including women’s legal rights and family planning. It continued to provide government-required one-year training to imams, training an average of 150 morchidines and 100 morchidates a year. It also continued to train foreign imams, predominantly from sub-Saharan Africa. The training sessions fulfilled the requirement for religious leaders to acquire a certificate issued by the High Council of Ulema to operate in the country. The High Council of Ulema also continued to host continuing training sessions and capacity-building exercises for the religious leaders.

The government required religious leaders who work in the country to abide by the guidelines outlined in the MEIA-issued Guide of the Imam, Khatib, and the Preacher. The MEIA continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism. In January the MEIA suspended an imam for saying that celebrating the January 1 New Year was “haram” (against religion) during a sermon in a mosque in Rabat.

The MEIA continued to monitor Quranic schools to prevent what the ministry considered inflammatory or extremist rhetoric and to ensure teaching followed approved doctrine.

The government required mosques to close to the public shortly after daily prayer times to prevent use of the premises for what it termed “unauthorized activity,” including gatherings intended to promote extremism. Construction of new mosques, including those constructed using private funds, required authorization from the MEIA.

The government continued to restrict the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as some Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam.

Some Amazigh (Berber)-rights activists reported intolerance and suppression of traditional Amazigh customs in rural Amazigh villages by government-appointed morchidates.

The government’s policy remained to ban the sale of all books, videotapes, and DVDs it considered extremist.

The government permitted the display and sale of Bibles in French, English, and Spanish. A limited number of Arabic translations of the Bible were available for sale in a few bookshops for use in higher education courses.

The government continued drafting and implementing an educational charter mandating traditional education be based on “values” and the “respect for religious and legal studies.” The Ministry of Education (MOE) continued a review of the religion curriculum used in primary and secondary education to make reforms based on universal values of liberty, empathy, solidarity, and honesty. Since the review began in 2016, 29 textbooks have been rewritten and modifications to textbooks continued during the year. The government was sharing its experience with other countries.

There were no reports from Shia citizens that security forces detained and questioned Shia citizens about their beliefs. In contrast to previous years, the MOE reported it granted the only two exemptions from mandatory Islamic education requested during the year.

The government continued to allow the operation of registered foreign-resident Christian churches. In contrast to previous years, Christian leaders said there were no reports of authorities pressuring converts to renounce their faith by informing friends, relatives, and employers of the individual’s conversions. Foreign residents and visitors attended religious services without restriction at places of worship belonging to officially recognized churches. An estimated 10,000 individuals, including sub-Saharan African Christians as well as some who identified as Sunni Muslims, attended the Sunday Mass Pope Francis led in Rabat on March 30.

Jewish and Christian citizens continued to state elementary and high school curricula did not include mention of the historical legacy and current presence of their groups in the country. The government continued to fund the study of Jewish culture and heritage at state-run universities.

The government continued to disseminate information about Islam and Judaism over dedicated state-funded television and radio channels. Television channel Assadissa (Six) programming was strictly religious, consisting primarily of Quran and hadith (authoritative sayings and deeds ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad) readings and exegesis, highlighting the government’s interpretation of Islam.

According to observers, the government tolerated social and charitable activities consistent with Sunni Islam. For example, the Unity and Reform Movement, the country’s largest registered Islamic social organization, continued its close relationship with the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), the largest party in the governing coalition, and continued to operate without restriction, according to media reports.

The monarchy continued to support the restoration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries throughout the country, efforts it stated were necessary to preserve the country’s religious and cultural heritage and to serve as a symbol of tolerance. According to the government and Jewish leaders, the MEIA did not interfere in the operations or the practices in synagogues. In April the king launched the construction of a new Jewish cultural museum in a building that was once a school near the historic Jewish neighborhood and cemetery in Fez.

The Prison Administration authorized religious observances and services provided by religious leaders for all prisoners, including religious minorities.

During the annual commemoration of the anniversary of the king’s reign, the king bestowed honors on the Grand Rabbi of Casablanca and the heads of the Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, and Russian Orthodox churches in recognition of their contributions to religious tolerance in the country.

On March 30, King Mohammed VI received Pope Francis at Tour Hassan, the burial site of his father and grandfather, Kings Hassan II and Mohamed V. The by-invitation ceremony included foreign and domestic religious leaders, the diplomatic corps, sub-Saharan migrants, security forces, and local government officials. The king’s nationally televised remarks promoted interfaith dialogue and interreligious coexistence. Alternating between Arabic, French, Spanish, and English during his speech, the king said he interpreted his title “Commander of the Faithful” as “the Commander of all believers… [including] Moroccan Jews and Christians from other countries, who are living in Morocco.”

On March 30, the king and Pope Francis also visited the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, which trains domestic, European, and African imams and morchidines and morchidates on a moderate interpretation of Sunni Islam as a counter to the spread of radical Islam, an institute the pope praised for “provid[ing] a suitable preparation for future religious leaders.” The institute trains up to 1,400 students to serve as imams, including foreign students.

After the pope and king visited the Imam Training Center in Rabat on March 30, their hosts staged a musical performance fusing the Islamic call to prayer with Jewish and Christian hymns. The International Union of Muslim Scholars, a Salafist organization, denounced the performance as offensive to Islam’s values. Many citizens turned to social media to denounce the criticism and defend the musical performance as an example of interreligious coexistence.

On October 3-4, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MFA) in partnership with the Rabita Mohammedia of Religious Scholars, an association of religious scholars promoting openness and tolerance in Islam and founded by the king in 2006, hosted the “First Regional Conference on Cultural Heritage Protection for Religious Communities.” Government officials, religious leaders, and cultural preservation experts from Morocco and other countries participated in the two-day conference that covered policies that promote respect for and protection of cultural heritage and efforts to restore cultural heritage sites of religious significance for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities. The conference also aimed to raise public awareness, particularly among youth, of the importance of cultural heritage related to religious communities. At the conference, Secretary of State of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Mounia Boucetta said, “Moroccans have made an irreversible choice to uphold and practice the values of tolerance, coexistence, and peace, a choice that honors the legacy of our past but most importantly it is the only choice we have to ensure a stable and prosperous future for our country.”

On an April 14 television program, Minister of Human Rights Mustapha Ramid stated the government did not criminalize conversion from Islam, distinguishing it from the crime of “shaking” others’ faiths or attempting to convert Muslims to another religion. Stating that the convert was not “culpable,” Ramid said the criminal code focused on proselytizing that exploits the “fragility” and “needs” of potential converts.

Member of Parliament Amina Maelainine, a PJD member, said in March that “the veil is not an Islamic pillar” and that she had previously put “disproportionate” emphasis on physical appearance and modesty as central to Islam. She also stated that some members of her party were “open on the question of the hijab” but could not openly express their views because of “party and social constraints.” Faith, she said, was entirely a personal matter, and “freedom of conscience should be guaranteed for everyone.” Maelainine’s comments followed release of photographs on social media showing her unveiled during a visit to Paris.

MOI and MEIA authorization continued to be a requirement for the renovation or construction of churches. On June 21, the St. John’s Anglican Church in Casablanca, which is home to an expatriate Anglican community, hosted the grand opening of its community center, built with approval from government authorities; the church building was under government-approved renovation, with an expected grand opening in 2020.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Representatives of minority religious groups said fear of societal harassment, including ostracism by converts’ families, social ridicule, employment discrimination, and potential violence against them by “extremists,” were the main reasons leading them to practice their faiths discreetly.

During Ramadan, the press reported a teenage girl in Ouazzane was attacked on a bus by the bus driver for eating in public. Media reported she filed a complaint with the local authorities who opened an investigation into the case. In August the government reported the prosecutor general’s office closed the case after the victim and perpetrator of the attack came to a mediated resolution. During Ramadan, authorities arrested and fined several individuals for smoking in public.

According to the 2018-2019 AMDH report, there was continued societal harassment of Shia and Shiism in the press and through Friday sermons. Shia reported they observed Ashura in private to avoid societal harassment. Shia Muslims said that many avoided disclosing their religious affiliation in areas where their numbers were smaller.

In March the New York Times reported the country’s citizens could not freely express atheistic beliefs or conversion to another faith, adding that “Criticizing Islam remains extremely sensitive, and worship for indigenous Christians … is problematic, particularly for those who converted from Islam.”

There were reports from media, activists, community leaders, and Christian converts that Christian citizens faced social pressure to convert to Islam or renounce their Christian faith from non-Christian family and friends. Young Christians who still lived with their Muslim families reportedly did not reveal their faith because they believed they might be expelled from their homes unless they renounced Christianity.

Jewish citizens continued to state that they lived and attended services at synagogues in safety. They said they were able to visit religious sites regularly and to hold annual commemorations. Several Jewish citizens, however, reported increased perceived societal intolerance, particularly when news media gave prominent coverage to Israeli-Palestinian issues.

Media continued to report women had difficulty finding employment in some private businesses if they wore a hijab or other head covering. When women who wore a hijab obtained such employment, they reported employers either encouraged or required them to remove their headscarves during working hours. Conversely, some women cited on media outlets societal pressure to wear the hijab given the widespread societal emphasis on physical appearance and modesty as central to Islam. According to a media report, during an October 12 roundtable at the 12th annual Fez Festival of Sufi Culture, an audience member called for a woman wearing a hijab to remove her head covering before posing a question to the roundtable’s panel of experts. The woman wearing the hijab defended her right to do so and noted the forum was an Islamic festival.

In contrast to previous years, Baha’i leaders said they did not experience harassment during the year. Members of the Baha’i Faith said they were open about their faith with family, friends, and neighbors.

Muslim citizens continued to study at private Christian and Jewish schools, reportedly because these schools maintained a reputation for offering a good education. According to school administrators, Muslim students continued to constitute a significant portion of the students at Jewish schools in Casablanca.

Abdelilah Benkirane, former prime minister and former secretary general of the PJD, told the press in May that the role of political parties is to find solutions faced by their country, independent from religion. Benkirane, who described the PJD as a political party with an Islamic orientation, said religion and politics can be separate, “The state’s body of laws should not necessarily be in line with Islamic rulings.”

A report published on June 27 by the Arab Barometer, an international research and polling network, found 38 percent of citizens said they were religious compared to 44 percent who were somewhat religious and 13 percent who identified themselves as not religious. Those aged 18-29 were more than 40 percent less likely to identify as religious compared to those aged 60 or older. The report also found “the younger generation is substantially less likely to want religious figures to have a say over government.” The report added, “Among…Muslims, roughly a quarter (27 percent) believe that the law should be entirely (12 percent) or mostly (15 percent) based on the sharia. Instead, a plurality (32 percent) say the law should be based equally on the sharia and the will of the people, while 21 percent say it should be based mostly on the will of the people, and 15 percent say it should be entirely based on what the people prefer. Support for making laws mostly or entirely based on the sharia has declined since 2016, falling by 9 points.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires, other embassy and consulate general officials, and visiting U.S. government officials, including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, met with government officials, including from the MFA, MOI, and Ministry of Justice, to promote religious freedom and tolerance, as well as the rights of minority communities. For example, on January 8, the Charge d’Affaires met with Minister of State for Human Rights and Relations with Parliament Mustapha Ramid and the Inter-Ministerial Delegate for Human Rights Ahmed Benayoub to underscore the importance of preserving and protecting the rights of all religious communities. In October the Ambassador at Large and Charge d’Affaires recognized the government’s efforts to promote interfaith dialogue while also encouraging the government to recognize the existence of all of its religious minority communities as well as to establish a legal framework for non-Muslim or Jewish citizens to address personal legal status matters, including marriage.

Embassy and consulate general officials met members of religious minority and majority communities throughout the country, where they highlighted on a regular basis the importance of protection of religious minorities and interfaith dialogue.

In May the Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies (TALIM) organized an academic seminar on the relationship between the country’s Muslim and Jewish communities and the country’s tradition of tolerance and coexistence at the U.S. Legation, a U.S. government-owned building (and the only National Historic Landmark located outside of U.S. territory) leased to TALIM, which receives regular embassy funding for cultural and outreach programming. Embassy officials attended the seminar and publicized it on embassy communications platforms.

In June an embassy official delivered remarks recognizing religious freedom as an inalienable right that should be preserved and advanced for all at the opening ceremony for the Anglican Church Community Center in Casablanca. On October 3, the Ambassador at Large delivered remarks at the opening of the First Regional Conference on Cultural Heritage Protection for Religious Communities, cohosted and coordinated by the MFA, Rabita, and the U.S. government. In his remarks, the Ambassador highlighted the U.S. commitment to cultural preservation and religious freedom and recognized the country as a regional leader in preserving its Jewish sites around the country.

Qatar

Executive Summary

The constitution states Islam is the state religion and sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation. The constitution guarantees the freedom to practice religious rites in accordance with “the maintenance of public order and morality.” The law punishes “offending” Islam or any of its rites or beliefs or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations constitute the registered religious groups in the country. Unregistered religious groups are illegal but generally may practice their faith privately. The government continued to censor or ban print and social media religious material it considered objectionable. In June the government deported an Arabic-speaking evangelical Christian pastor after interrogating him for three days on charges of leading a place of worship without authorization and inviting non-Christians to his church. Conversion to another religion from Islam is defined by the law as apostasy and illegal, although there have been no recorded punishments for apostasy since the country’s independence in 1971 On May 18 AJ+ Arabic, an online media platform run by the government-owned Al-Jazeera network, posted a video on Facebook and Twitter that stated that Israel is the biggest “winner” from the Holocaust and that Zionism “suckled from the Nazi spirit” and that “some people believe that Hitler supported Zionism.” The network apologized for the video, removed it from its site, and took disciplinary action against the reporter responsible. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) identified numerous anti-Semitic references in Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MOE) textbooks.

Privately owned media as well as social media included anti-Semitic material in their content. On May 22, Ahmed Al-Raissouni, head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), posted an article entitled “Why It Is Necessary to Question the Holocaust” on the IUMS website and his personal website and Facebook page. According to his posting, the Holocaust narrative “fabricated by the Zionist movement” contains “politically slanted and questionable” material. On June 12, on a program on Al-Araby TV, Ahmad Zayed, a professor of sharia at the state-run Qatar University, stated that although sharia allows Christians to run for public office, Muslims should not vote for them since sharia requires rulers to be Muslim.

In January a delegation led by the Secretary of State met with senior counterparts in Doha and signed a statement of intent to “support the shared ideals of tolerance and appreciation for diversity.” In April the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities met in Doha with officials to urge the government to allow greater religious freedom for minorities, and with representatives of religious groups to discuss their concerns. Embassy representatives met with government officials to express concern over anti-Semitic cartoons. The Charge d’Affaires also met with leadership at Al-Jazeera regarding anti-Semitic political cartoons. The embassy continued to meet with relevant government bodies, as well as with quasi-governmental religious institutions concerning the rights of religious minorities, Sunni-Shia relations, and anti-Semitism. In July the embassy participated in a religious freedom conference between Christian leaders and Muslim leaders to discuss religious tolerance hosted by the Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID).

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population as 2.4 million (midyear 2019 estimate). Citizens make up approximately 12 percent of the population, while noncitizens account for approximately 88 percent. Most citizens are Sunni Muslims, and almost all of the remaining citizens are Shia Muslims. Reliable figures are unavailable, but estimates based solely on the religious composition of expatriates suggest Muslims, while they are the largest religious group, likely make up less than half of the total population. The breakdown of the noncitizen population between Sunni, Shia, and other Muslim groups is not available.

Other religious groups, which are comprised exclusively of expatriates, in descending order of size include Hindus, almost exclusively from India and Nepal; Roman Catholics, primarily from the Philippines, Europe, and India; and Buddhists, largely from South, Southeast, and East Asia. Smaller groups include Anglicans and Protestant denominations, Egyptian Copts, Baha’is, and Greek and other Eastern Orthodox.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and states sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation. According to the constitution, the emir must be Muslim. The constitution provides for hereditary rule by men in the emir’s branch of the Al Thani family. The emir exercises full executive power. The constitution guarantees the “freedom to practice religious rites” to all persons “in accordance with the law and the requirements of the maintenance of public order and morality.” It prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.

Conversion to another religion from Islam is defined by the law as apostasy and illegal, although there have been no recorded punishments for apostasy since the country’s independence in 1971.

The law provides for a prison sentence of up to seven years for offending or misinterpreting the Quran, “offending” Islam or any of its rites or beliefs, insulting any of the prophets, or defaming, desecrating, or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. The law stipulates a seven-year prison term for producing or circulating material containing slogans, images, or symbols defaming these three religions. The law also prohibits publication of texts provoking social discord or religious strife, with punishment of up to six months in prison.

To obtain an official presence in the country, expatriate non-Muslim religious groups must apply to register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The only registered religious groups are Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations. Protestant denominations other than the registered eight denominations, including nondenominational house churches, may register with the government with the support of the Christian Church Steering Committee (CCSC), an umbrella organization consisting of representatives of the eight already registered denominations. The eight registered Christian denominations are the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic, Maronite, evangelical Protestant, and the Inter-Denominational Christian Churches. In practice, nearly all other denominations are registered under the aegis of the Anglican Church.

Non-Christian groups must apply for registration through the MFA. Registered groups may hold bank accounts in the organization’s name, apply for property to build worship space (or have already built structures such as private villas recognized as worship spaces to avoid problems with authorities), import religious texts, and publish religious newsletters or flyers for internal distribution. Unregistered entities are unable to open accounts, solicit funds, worship in private spaces legally, acquire religious texts from outside the country, publish religious-themed newsletters or pamphlets, or legally hire staff.

According to the law, unregistered religious groups (i.e., those not registered or under the patronage of one of the registered groups) that engage in worship activities are illegal, and members of those groups are subject to deportation.

The law restricts public worship for non-Islamic faiths. It prohibits non-Muslim religious groups from displaying religious symbols, which includes banning Christian congregations from advertising religious services or placing crosses outdoors where they are visible to the public. The law criminalizes proselytizing on behalf of an organization, society, or foundation of any religion other than Islam and provides for punishment of up to 10 years in prison. Proselytizing on one’s own accord for any religion other than Islam may result in a sentence of up to seven years’ imprisonment. The law calls for two years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 riyals ($2,700) for possession of written or recorded materials or items that support or promote missionary activity. The law allows importation of religious holy books, such as Bibles.

The government regulates the publication, importation, and distribution of all religious books and materials. The government reviews, censors, or bans foreign newspapers, magazines, films, and books for objectionable sexual, religious, and political content. Religious groups may publish newsletters without government censorship but may only distribute them internally within their respective communities. To import religious materials, groups must submit one copy to the Ministry of Culture and Sports (MSC) and receive written approval before making large orders or risk having the entire shipment confiscated.

The only religions registered to have their own places of worship are Islam and Christianity. All mosques and Islamic institutions in the country must be registered with the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA). The law designates the MEIA minister as the final authority for approving Islamic religious centers. The MFA approves non-Islamic houses of worship in coordination with the private office of the emir.

The Office of the Secretary General of the MFA, working in coordination with the director of the MFA’s Human Rights Department, is responsible for handling church affairs.

A non-Muslim woman is not required by law to convert to Islam when marrying a Muslim; the law considers offspring of such a marriage to be Muslim, however. The law dictates that a non-Muslim man marrying a Muslim woman must convert to Islam.

Islamic instruction is compulsory for Muslim and non-Muslim students attending state-sponsored schools. Non-Muslims may provide private religious instruction for their children at home or in their faith services. All children may attend secular and coeducational private schools. These schools must offer optional Islamic instruction; non-Islamic religious education is prohibited.

A unified civil court system, incorporating sharia and secular law, has jurisdiction over both Muslims and non-Muslims. The unified court system applies sharia in family law cases, including those related to inheritance, marriage, divorce, and child custody. For Shia Muslims, a judicial panel decides cases regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, and other family matters, utilizing Shia interpretations of religious law. In other religious matters, family law applies across all branches of Islam. Non-Muslims are subject to sharia in cases of child custody, but civil law covers other personal status cases, including those related to divorce and inheritance.

Criminal law is based on the principles of sharia. The type of crime determines whether those convicted receive a sharia-based sentence. There are certain criminal charges, such as alcohol consumption and extramarital sex, for which Muslims are punished according to sharia principles, including court-ordered flogging. Sharia-based punishments may also apply to non-Muslims in these cases. The government often commutes harsher punishments mandated by sharia. Muslim convicts may earn a sentence reduction of a few months by memorizing the Quran while imprisoned. Secular law covers dispute resolution for financial service companies. The law approves implementing the Shia interpretation of sharia upon the agreement and request of the parties involved in the dispute.

The penal code stipulates that individuals seen eating or drinking during daylight hours during Ramadan are subject to a fine of 3,000 riyals ($820), three months’ imprisonment, or both.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The government submitted documents to the United Nations in 2018, and made a formal statement in its treaty accession document, that the government shall interpret Article 18, paragraph 2, of the ICCPR (“No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”) “based on the understanding that it does not contravene the Islamic sharia” and that the government would reserve the right to implement paragraph 2 in accordance with its understanding of sharia. The government also formally stated in its accession document that it would interpret several other provisions of the ICCPR in line with sharia, including Article 27 (regarding the rights of minorities “to profess and practice their own religion”). The government made a formal reservation against being bound by gender equality provisions in Article 3 and Article 23.4 regarding family law and inheritance.

Government Practices

In June the government repatriated an Arabic-speaking evangelical Christian pastor who led a house church after interrogating him for three days on charges of leading a place of worship without authorization and inviting non-Christians to his church. Authorities allowed the pastor to leave the country without trial. According to sources, some foreign members of the church stopped attending services for fear of being deported.

The government continued to state it would consider requests from nonregistered religious groups to acquire a place of worship if they applied to register but, as in previous years, said none had done so. The government stated that it continued to permit expatriate adherents of unregistered religious groups such as Hinduism, Buddhism, the Baha’i Faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and unregistered small Christian congregations to worship privately in rented villas, their homes, workplaces, and with others, although they lacked authorized facilities in which to practice their faiths.

According to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions, whose representatives visited prisons throughout in the country, there are approximately 26 cases of expatriate women serving prison terms for adultery and five cases of individuals serving time for “sodomy,” behaviors that are prohibited by sharia.

In September the Director of the National Human Rights Committee visited the CCSC for the first time to discuss religious tolerance, security, and space for the growing number of visitors. The CCSC regularly met with the MFA to discuss issues related to its congregants and to advocate for increased space due to the growing number of parishioners.

In its 2019 World Watch List report, the Christian NGO Open Doors USA stated, “There are two groups of Christians in Qatar that are strictly separated from each other. Expatriate communities consisting of Christian migrant workers are the biggest group. Proselytizing Muslims is strictly forbidden and can lead to prosecution and banishment [deportation] from the country… The other group consists of converts from Islam to Christianity. Converts from an indigenous and migrant background bear the brunt of persecution.”

The MEIA continued to hire clerics and assign them to specific mosques. The ministry continued to provide, on an ad hoc basis, thematic guidance for Friday sermons, focusing mainly on Islamic rituals and social values, with clear restrictions against using pulpits to express political views or attack other faiths. The ministry reviewed content but did not require clerics to obtain prior approval of their sermons. The government reserved the right to take judicial action against individuals who did not follow the guidance. The MEIA suspended the Dean of the College of Sharia and Islamic Studies in Qatar from public speaking, citing an October sermon that was recorded and posted online before ministry approval.

The MEIA continued to remind the public during Ramadan of its view of the correct way for Muslims to perform their religious duties. There were no reports of arrests or fines during the year for violation of the penal code’s ban on eating or drinking during daylight hours in Ramadan. All restaurants not located in hotels were required to close in daylight hours during Ramadan.

The government continued to discourage citizens and residents from taking part in the Umrah or Hajj due to an ongoing dispute with Saudi Arabia that started in mid-2017. Officials at the MEIA stated the decision was made because of concerns for pilgrims’ security due to the lack of diplomatic representation and coordination with Saudi religious and security authorities. While MEIA officials report that no citizens participated in the pilgrimages, there is anecdotal evidence that a handful traveled without government consent or assistance.

On May 18, AJ+ Arabic, an online media platform run by the government-owned Al-Jazeera network, posted a video on Facebook and Twitter that stated that Israel was the biggest “winner” from the Holocaust, that Zionism “suckled from the Nazi spirit,” and that “some people believe that Hitler supported Zionism.” The network later deleted the social media posts, apologized for the video, suspended two employees involved in its production, and stated the video contravened its editorial standards.

In a July report, the ADL said, “As recently as this Ramadan, [the] government continue[d] to advertise, host, and broadcast sermons at state-controlled mosques by preachers who have had longstanding past records of encouraging bigotry or even violence.” The report stated these imams were allowed to preach at Doha’s Grand Mosque.

The public school curriculum did not include information about non-Islamic religions. In books reviewed for a February report, the ADL found passages stating that most Jews in the world believe in seeking world domination and that Judaism is an “invalid, perverted religion” and that the Torah teaches Jews to kill, steal, deceive, and engage in racial supremacy. The report said that in the textbooks, non-Muslim “infidels” were identified as “combatants” whom Muslims were sanctioned to fight and that sorcerers should be killed. The ADL said that the textbooks contained the name and logo of the MOE on their cover and were included on a page on the ministry’s website that described all the books as constituting material for the fall semester for the 2018-2019 academic year. DICID and the MOE reported that due to the break in relations with Saudi Arabia that began in 2017 which cut off the MOE from its traditional source of textbooks, the government has moved to introduce new textbooks promoting religious tolerance.

The NGO Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reviewed textbooks in use for the 2018-19 school year and found, “the textbooks for junior high and high school repeatedly stress the difference between Muslims and non-Muslims, describing the latter as ‘unbelievers’ who will suffer terrible tortures in Hell.” MEMRI said the books stressed the superiority of Islam over other religions, especially over Judaism and Christianity, which were presented as false and distorted, and that they featured anti-Semitic motifs that portrayed Jews as treacherous, dishonest, and crafty, and at the same time as weak, wretched, and cowardly.

The conclusion of the July ADL report read, “To be fair, Qatar’s record is not one of uniformly promoting hatred. Some of its laws, rhetoric, dialogue summits, and educational programs seem to be attempts at addressing some real problems of intolerance or extremism. But Qatar’s simultaneous enabling of so many extremist messages would seem to nullify any of its activities to counter hate and is inconsistent with [U.S.] values …Having occurred so many different times in so many different areas makes this problem seem systematic and willful rather than a simple oversight.”

In a June interview on the German state-owned DW (Deutsche Welle) broadcast channel, MFA spokeswoman Lolwah Al-Khater said it was untrue that the government continued to use its platforms to promote anti-Semitism. She stated “There always needs to be a balance between freedom of expression and what people think and what the government should do.” Saying that “all voices” are represented in the country, she described anti-Semitic speech as “absolutely not acceptable.”

Although the law prohibits Christian groups from advertising religious services, Christian churches continued to post hours of services and other information on publicly accessible websites; however, the government continued to prohibit them from publishing such information in local newspapers or on public bulletin boards. Church leaders and religious groups continued to state that individuals practiced self-censorship when expressing religious views online and relied mostly on word of mouth, church websites, social media platforms, and email newsletters to distribute information about religious groups’ activities.

The government maintained its policy of reviewing, censoring, or banning newspapers, magazines, books, and social media for “objectionable” religious content, such as an attack on Islamic values or depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. Journalists and publishers at times said they practice self-censorship regarding material the government might consider contrary to Islam.

The Mesaymeer Religious Complex, also known as “Church City” and located on government-owned land, continued to provide worship space for the eight registered Christian denominations, with clear government instructions that Christian symbols such as crosses, steeples, and statues were not permitted on the exterior of church buildings. The government continued to allow unregistered churches to worship there as well, but only under the patronage of one of the eight recognized denominations. The Anglican Center within the Mesaymeer Religious Complex housed a number of other smaller denominations and offered space to 88 congregations of different denominations and languages.

According to church leaders, approximately 50,000 expatriate Christians continued to attend weekly services at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex. Representatives of the CCSC continued to state there was overcrowding in seven buildings in the complex, and noted difficulties with parking, access, and time-sharing. In addition to the permanent buildings, the government allowed the churches to erect tents during Easter and Christmas outside of the primary complex to accommodate the extra congregants wanting to attend services during these holidays. The government continued to enforce strict security measures at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex, including closing parking lots, setting a curfew on church access, and using metal detectors. Ministry of Interior (MOI) security personnel continued to ask churchgoers to show their IDs at the gates because non-Christians, either expatriates or citizens, continued to be prohibited access to the complex.

Representatives of the Hindu community continued to express concern that the government had not granted Hindus permission to open new places of worship. In 2012 the government closed a private villa being used for this purpose. Community representatives reported that the Indian prime minister, during a visit to the country, asked government representatives to allow the construction of a Hindu temple or community center.

In February Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem consecrated Saint Issac Church, located in the religious complex, to host followers of this denomination after years of serving in a temporary location.

The CCSC reported that Christian clergy were allowed to visit members of their congregations when they were hospitalized and to conduct monthly trips to both male and female prisons to meet with incarcerated Christians.

The government prohibited the slaughter of animals outside of licensed facilities, a measure it said was intended to ensure hygienic conditions. In practice, individuals were able to conduct ritual slaughter in private.

Church leaders stated their ability to collect and distribute funds for charity continued to be limited by the government’s restrictions on the number and type of bank accounts churches could hold, as well as reporting requirements on donors and on contractors doing business with churches. Some smaller unregistered churches continued to use the personal accounts of religious leaders for church activities.

The MOI allowed more than 100 house churches to operate throughout the country, including 90 that were allocated to members of the Evangelical Church Alliance in Qatar.

In October following criticism of the 2018 Doha Book Fair for including anti-Semitic books, the MSC posted a public letter on its website soliciting feedback from the public about books that do not adhere to book fair guidelines.

The government-funded DICID held a roundtable international religious freedom conference in July, inviting embassies and government ministries.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Media in the country continued to publish anti-Semitic material.

The daily Al-Rayah published April 30 an article claiming, “The Zionist movement managed to establish the ‘Holocaust culture’ in Western political ethics and morally forced it on European societies.” The article characterized German reparations to Israel and Jews after World War II as “compensation for the ‘victims’ of the alleged Nazi Holocaust.”

On May 22, Ahmed Al-Raissouni, new head of the Doha-based IUMS, posted an article entitled “Why It Is Necessary to Question the Holocaust” on the IUMS website and on his personal website and Facebook page. According to his posting, the Holocaust narrative, which it said was fabricated by the Zionist movement, consists of claims that are “politically slanted and questionable,” many of which cannot be verified.

On June 12, on a program on Al-Araby TV, based in the United Kingdom, Ahmad Zayed, a professor of sharia at the state-run Qatar University, stated that although sharia allows Christians to run for public office, Muslims should not vote for them since sharia requires rulers to be Muslim.

On March 27, Abdul Aziz Al-Khazraj Al-Ansari, identified as a sociologist, posted a video to his YouTube channel criticizing U.S. decisions to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. In the video, Al-Ansari, who is not a public figure in the country, described Jews as “filthy and lowly people. They are cowards.” He said Arabs should arm Gazans to “go after those Jewish dogs.” In a video posted on March 15, Al-Ansari said the March 13 attack on two New Zealand mosques only benefitted “those impure people, the Jews,” who were trying to sow discord between Islam and Christianity.

The privately owned newspaper Al-Rayah published an anti-Semitic political cartoon by a Palestinian cartoonist on October 2019 depicting Israel as a stereotypical caricature of an Orthodox Jew.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In January a delegation led by the Secretary of State met with senior counterparts in Doha. The results of this dialogue included a Memorandum of Understanding on educational cooperation with Qatar and a signed Statement of Intent to “support the shared ideals of tolerance and appreciation for diversity.” In April the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities met in Doha with officials to urge greater religious freedom for minorities, including Hindus and Buddhists. He also met with representatives of religious minority groups to discuss their difficulties in securing approval for places of worship.

The Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers continued to meet with relevant government bodies, including the Office of the Secretary General and Human Rights Department at the MFA, the MOI Department of Human Rights, and the MEIA, as well as quasi-governmental religious institutions such as the DICID, concerning the rights of religious minorities, including the need for additional worship space for many communities and registration issues. Other issues discussed included the status of Sunni-Shia relations in the country, interest in international exchange programs for imams and MEIA officials, and government efforts to prevent the spread of extremist ideologies within mosques. In July embassy officers participated in a religious freedom conference with Christian and Muslim leaders to discuss religious tolerance hosted by the Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID).

As it did in 2018, the embassy worked with the Ministry of Culture and Sports and other stakeholder to secure approvals for a November evangelical Christian musical performance in Doha attended by approximately 15,000 concertgoers.

Embassy officials continued to facilitate an agreement between the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs and the CCSC to raise awareness among churchgoers about ongoing changes to the labor law, which affected the expatriate population, and the procedures for submitting complaints to authorities. The ministry agreed in principle to use churches as dissemination platforms to highlight reforms and help educate congregations about future labor law developments. The ministry subsequently held multiple meetings with clergy to discuss how to proceed with a similar outreach event in 2019.

In April and September embassy officials met with government officials to discuss concerns over past publication of anti-Semitic cartoons. The Charge d’Affaires met with representatives of Al-Jazeera to emphasize that anti-Semitic depictions of Jews or Israel were offensive. Embassy representatives also raised anti-Semitism with other media representatives, including staff members at Arabic- and English-language newspapers. In October the MFA sent a letter to the embassy stating its intentions to remove any anti-Semitic publications from the 2020 Doha International Book Fair. Embassy officers also encouraged MSC, the agency that organizes the book fair, to take a more proactive approach in prohibiting anti-Semitic content at the next book fair in January 2020.

In April the Charge d’Affaires also met with leadership at Al-Jazeera to discuss concerns about its broadcasting and publishing anti-Semitic content.

Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad). The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted by the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion. The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim. In January and May, police raided predominantly Shia villages in al-Qatif Governorate, stating the raids were carried out to arrest terrorist cells or preempt terrorist attacks. On November 13, rights groups announced that Hussein al-Ribh, a 38-year-old Shia activist who was in detention since 2017, died in Dammam Prison. Some Shia activists outside the country stated that authorities tortured al-Ribh while he was detained. In April the government executed 37 citizens for “terrorism crimes,” the largest mass execution since 2016. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), at least 33 of the 37 were from the country’s minority Shia community and had been convicted following what they stated were unfair trials for various alleged crimes, including protest-related offenses. In January rights groups reported Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmed al-Amari died as a result of poor prison conditions and mistreatment, and in August, Sheikh Saleh Abdulaziz al-Dhamiri died due to a heart condition while held in solitary confinement in Tarafia Prison. Authorities detained Thumar al-Marzouqi, Mohammed al-Sadiq, and Bader al-Ibrahim, three Shia Muslims who have written in the past on the discrimination faced by Shia Muslims, in April with no official charges filed; they remained in detention at year’s end. On February 1, human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that the public prosecutor was no longer seeking the death penalty for female Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, detained since 2015 after participating in antigovernment protests in the Eastern Province. During the year, government leaders, including the crown prince and the head of the government-sponsored Muslim World League (MWL), took new steps to combat religious extremism and to encourage interreligious tolerance and dialogue, conducting prominent public outreach, particularly with Christian and Jewish leaders and groups.

According to press and NGO reports, in February in Medina, an unidentified man beheaded a six-year-old boy on the street in front of his mother reportedly because he was Shia. In September an academic at Qassim University, Dr. Ahmed al-Hassan, called in a tweet for rooting out heretic Shia from the holy city of Medina. Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in legal and security matters and in private sector employment. Some social media platforms for discussion of current events and religious issues included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” Terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in social media discourse. Anti-Semitic comments appeared in the media.

In his address to the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on July 18, Vice President Pence called on the Saudi government to release blogger Raif Badawi, stating that Badawi, among others he highlighted, “stood in defense of religious liberty, the exercise of their faith, despite unimaginable pressure.” The Vice President added that “the United States calls on Saudi Arabia to “respect the freedom of conscience and let these men go.” In discussions with the Human Rights Commission (HRC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA), and other ministries and agencies, senior U.S. embassy and consulate officials continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforcement of laws against religious minorities, promotion of respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the country’s total population at 33.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate), including more than 12 million foreign residents. Between 85 and 90 percent of the approximately 20 million citizens are Sunni Muslims.

Shia Muslims constitute 10 to 12 percent of the citizen population and at least one-quarter of the Eastern Province’s population. Approximately 80 percent of Shia are “Twelvers” (Shia who recognize 12 imams) and are primarily located in the Eastern Province. The Nakhawala, or “Medina Shia,” are also Twelvers and reside in small numbers in the western Hejaz region. Estimates place their numbers at approximately 1,000. Twelver Shia adhere to the Ja’afari school of jurisprudence. Most of the remaining Shia are Sulaimani Ismailis, also known as “Seveners” (those who branched off from the Twelvers to follow Isma’il ibn Ja’afar as the Seventh Imam). Seveners number approximately 500,000 and reside primarily in Najran Province, where they probably constitute a majority of the province’s inhabitants. Another branch of Sevener Shia, the Bohra Ismailis, probably number at least a few hundred, most of whom are of South Asian origin. Pockets of Zaydis, members of another branch of Shia Islam, numbering a total of approximately 20,000, reside primarily in the provinces of Jizan and Najran along the border with Yemen.

Foreign embassies indicate the noncitizen population, including many undocumented migrants, is mostly Muslim. According to a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center, of the country’s total population (including foreigners), there were approximately 25.5 million Muslims, 1.2 million Christians (including Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholics); 310,000 Hindus; 180,000 religiously unaffiliated (including atheists, agnostics, and individuals who did not identify with any particular religion); 90,000 Buddhists; 70,000 followers of folk religions; and 70,000 adherents of other religions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law of Governance establishes the country as a sovereign Arab Islamic state in which Islam is the official religion. The Basic Law says sharia is the “foundation of the Kingdom” and states the country’s constitution is the Quran and the Sunna. The Basic Law contains no legal recognition or protection of freedom of religion. Conversion from Islam to another religion is grounds for the charge of apostasy, which is legally punishable by death, although courts have not carried out a death sentence for apostasy in recent years.

Blasphemy against Islam may also be legally punishable by death, but courts have not sentenced individuals to death for blasphemy in recent years. Punishments for blasphemy may include lengthy prison sentences and lashings. Criticism of Islam, including expression deemed offensive to Muslims, is forbidden on the grounds of preserving social stability.

The 2017 counterterrorism law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” On January 25, authorities issued implementation regulations that criminalize “calling for atheist thought in any form or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.” The right to access legal representation for those accused of violating the counterterrorism law is limited; according to the law, “the Public Prosecutor may, at the investigative stage, restrict this right whenever the interests of the investigation so require.” There is no right to access government-held evidence.

The Basic Law states the duty of every citizen is to defend Islam, society, and the homeland. Non-Muslims must convert to Islam before they are eligible to naturalize. The law requires applicants for citizenship to attest to being Muslim and to obtain a certificate documenting their religious affiliation endorsed by a Muslim religious authority. Children born to Muslim fathers are deemed Muslim by law.

The country is the home of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites. The government prohibits non-Muslims from entering central Mecca or religious sites in Medina. Muslims visit these cities on the annual Hajj pilgrimage and during Umrah pilgrimage throughout the rest of the year. The government has stated that caring for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is a sacred trust exercised on behalf of all Muslims. The country’s sovereign employs the official title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” in reference to the two cities. The government also establishes national quotas for foreigners and issues permits to Muslim residents (including its own nationals) to participate in the Hajj.

Muslim clerics are vetted and employed by the MOIA. Only government-employed clerics are permitted to deliver sermons, which must be vetted by the MOIA in advance.

Clerics traveling abroad for proselytization activities must be granted approval by the MOIA and operate under MOIA supervision. The stated purpose of the regulation is to limit the ability of religious scholars to travel or to preach overseas and to prevent the appearance of interference, or actual interference, by clerics in the domestic affairs of other states.

Public school students at all levels receive mandatory religious instruction based on Sunni Islam according to the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. Private schools are not permitted to deviate from the official, government-approved religious curriculum. Private international schools are required to teach Saudi students and Muslim students of other nationalities an Islamic studies course, while non-Muslim, non-Saudi students sometimes receive a course on Islamic civilization, or alternative coursework in place of the curriculum designed for Saudi students; courses amount to one hour of instruction per week. Private international schools may also teach courses on other religions or civilizations.

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is a government agency with authority to monitor social behavior and report violations of moral standards to law enforcement authorities. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) oversees CPVPV operations on the king’s behalf. By decree, the CPVPV’s activities are limited to providing counseling and reporting individuals suspected of violating the law to the police. The CPVPV may not detain, arrest, pursue, or demand the identification documents of any person; those actions are explicitly reserved as the purview of the police and counternarcotics units. According to law, the CPVPV must “uphold its duties with kindness and gentleness as decreed by the examples of the Prophet Mohammed.” CPVPV field officers do not wear uniforms, but they are required to wear identification badges. The CPVPV’s religious purview includes the prohibited public practice of non-Islamic faiths or displaying emblems (such as crosses) thereof; failing to respect Islam, including Ramadan fasting; “immodest” dress; displaying or selling media “contrary to Islam;” and venerating places or celebrating events inconsistent with approved Islamic practices.

The judicial system is largely based on laws derived from the Quran and the Sunna. All judges are religiously trained, although they often also have specialized knowledge of nonreligious legal subjects. In several areas, including commercial and financial matters, and criminal law related to electronic and cybercrimes or terrorism, jurisprudence increasingly is based on international models rather than religious texts. Law on religious matters, which often affects civil law, particularly on personal status issues, is developed by fatwas (official interpretations of religious law) issued by the 21-person Council of Senior Scholars (CSS) that reports to the king. The Basic Law states governance is based on justice, shura (consultation), and equality according to sharia and further identifies the Quran and the Sunna as the sources for fatwas. The law specifies a hierarchical organization and composition of the CSS, the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings (ifta), and the Office of the Mufti, together with their functions. The Basic Law recognizes the CSS, supported by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, as the supreme authority on religious matters. The CSS is headed by the grand mufti and is composed of Sunni religious scholars and jurists, 18 of whom are from the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, with one representative of each of the other Sunni schools (Malaki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i). There are no Shia members. Scholars are chosen at the king’s discretion and serve renewable four-year terms, with many serving for life.

The country’s legal architecture does not derive from a common law system, and judges are not bound by legal precedent. In the absence of a comprehensive criminal code, rulings and sentences can diverge widely. Criminal appeals may be made to the appellate and supreme courts, where in some instances, appellate decisions have resulted in a harsher sentence than the original court decision. Government universities provide training in all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, with a focus on the Hanbali school.

In legal cases involving accidental death or injury, compensation sometimes differs according to the religious affiliation of the plaintiff. In the event a court renders a judgment in favor of a plaintiff who is a Jewish or Christian male, a court may rule the plaintiff is entitled to receive 50 percent of the compensation a Muslim male would receive; in some circumstances, other non-Muslims may only receive one-sixteenth the amount a male Muslim would receive.

Judges have been observed to discount the testimony of Muslims whom they deemed deficient in their knowledge of Islam, and to favor the testimony of Muslims over the testimony of non-Muslims. Under the government’s interpretation of the Quran, judges may place the value of a woman’s testimony at half that of a man’s in certain cases.

The Basic Law requires the state to protect human rights in accordance with sharia. The HRC, a government entity, is tasked with protecting, enhancing, and ensuring implementation of international human rights standards “in light of the provisions of sharia,” and regularly follows up on citizen complaints. There are no formal requirements regarding the composition of the HRC; during the year, the commission had approximately 28 members from various parts of the country, including two Shia members.

Social media users who post or share satire attacking religion face imprisonment for up to five years under the Anti-Cyber Crime Law. Those found guilty of distributing content online deemed to disrupt public order or disturb religious values would also be subject to a fine of three million riyals ($800,000). The country’s public prosecutor’s office said in a statement on Twitter: “Producing and distributing content that ridicules, mocks, provokes and disturbs public order, religious values and public morals through social media will be considered a cybercrime.”

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

There were NGO and Shia activist reports of prison authorities abusing Shia prisoners, including two cases of abuse that led to prisoners’ deaths. On November 13, human rights NGOs announced that Hussein al-Ribh, a 38-year-old Shia activist in detention since 2017, died in Dammam Prison. Some Shia activists outside the country said that authorities tortured al-Ribh while detained. In January another Shia activist, Naif al-Omran, died after eight years in detention, while serving a 20-year sentence for protest-related charges in Qatif dating back to 2011. According to al-Omran’s family, his body bore visible marks of abuse.

On April 23, the MOI announced the execution of 37 citizens in Riyadh, Mecca, Medina, the Eastern Province, Qassim, and Asir regions in connection with “terrorism crimes.” According to HRW, at least 33 of the 37 were from the country’s minority Shia community and had been convicted following unfair trials for various alleged crimes, including protest-related offenses, espionage, and terrorism. Shia Rights Watch (SRW) reported that Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Attiyah was among the executed. Amnesty International said those executed were convicted after sham trials that violated international fair trial standards and which relied on confessions extracted through torture. In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet commented, “It is particularly abhorrent that at least three of those killed were minors at the time of their sentencing.” According to the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR), at least six of the executed were minors at the time of their alleged offenses: Abdullah Salman al-Sarih and Abdulkarim Mohammed al-Hawaj, whose charges date back to age 16; and Said Mohammed al-Sakafi, Salman Amin al-Quraysh, Mujtaba Nadir al-Sweiket, and Abdulaziz Hassan al-Sahwi, whose charges date back to age 17. The government denied the individuals were minors and disputed the ages reported by HRW and ESOHR. The mass executions were the largest since January 2016.

On January 7, security forces raided the predominately Shia al-Jish village for suspected “links to cases of state security” in al-Qatif Governorate, killing six people and arresting others after an exchange of fire, according to Saudi Press Agency. Five officers were also wounded in the operation.

On May 11, security forces killed eight members of an alleged Shia terrorist cell in a security operation in Taroot in Qatif Governorate in the Eastern Province, according to the Presidency of State Security. The statement added the newly formed “terrorist cell” had plans to carry out terrorist operations targeting vital installations and security sites.

On January 8, security forces stormed the Shia village of Umm al-Hamam, killing five persons and injuring an unspecified number, according to SRW. SRW said authorities also used armored vehicles in a separate operation in Jaroudiya town. SRW also reported a number of arrests during these operations, including Qatif-based Shia rights activist Mohammemod Nabil al-Jowhar on January 11.

On January 20, the London-based human rights group ALQST (“Justice” in Arabic) reported that Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmed al-Amari died as a result of poor prison conditions and possible torture. Authorities detained Al-Amari, the former dean of the School of Quran at the University of Medina, in 2018, and he suffered a brain hemorrhage on January 2. The Twitter account Prisoners of Conscience, which monitors and documents arrests in human rights cases in the country, and ALQST reported the 69-year-old’s death was caused by “intentional neglect” on the part of the prison authorities.

On August 3, rights groups reported the death of Sheikh Saleh Abdulaziz al-Dhamiri due to health complications he had developed at Tarafia Prison. Authorities kept Al-Dhamiri, who suffered from a heart condition, in solitary confinement, according to the Prisoners of Conscience Twitter account.

On November 13, family members of Islamic scholar Sheikh Fahd al-Qadi announced that al-Qadi had died in prison. The government detained Al-Qadi in 2016 and sentenced him in October to six years in prison. The circumstances surrounding his death remained unknown at year’s end. Prisoners of Conscience reported he was detained after he sent a letter of advice to the Royal Court.

As many as 39 individuals, most of them believed to be Shia, faced the possibility of execution, according to ESOHR. ESOHR also reported that up to seven minors faced possible execution, including Ali al-Nimr (nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric executed by the government in 2016), Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher. The government disputed the claim that these individuals were minors at the time they committed the acts for which they were convicted, and noted the courts use the hijri (lunar/Islamic) calendar for age computations (which could differ from Western Gregorian calendar ages by a few months). Five Shia individuals, including al-Nimr, al-Marhoon and al-Zaher, faced a final death sentence and nine faced preliminary death sentences, which still needed to be upheld by an appellate court, the Supreme Court, and the king. The trials of 25 individuals, most of them Shia, on charges carrying potential death sentences were ongoing at year’s end, and one of those convicted was awaiting the ruling of the Court of Appeal after his second verdict. Some human rights NGOs reported that many of the convictions were “based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture.” International human rights NGOs reported that these individuals said authorities tortured them during pretrial detention and interrogation. Local Shia activists and international human rights groups questioned the competence, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary, and noted that the underlying charges were inconsistent with international principles of freedom of assembly, expression, and association.

On August 25, the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Habib, who was serving a seven-year prison sentence, to an additional five years in prison and a five-year ban on international travel after he was convicted of supporting demonstrations in Qatif and cybercrimes. According to human rights groups, authorities detained al-Habib in response to his public statements urging the government to address anti-Shia sectarianism, including in the educational curriculum, and criticizing government clerics who had espoused anti-Shia views.

On February 1, human rights NGOs reported the public prosecutor was no longer seeking the death penalty for female Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, who was detained in 2015 after participating in antigovernment protests. At year’s end, she was on trial at the SCC along with five other Shia individuals, including her husband.

Raif Badawi remained in prison at the end of the year based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols on the internet. Originally sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, a court increased Badawi’s sentence on appeal to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes. Badawi received 50 lashes in 2015; the government has not carried out the remaining 950 lashes and authorities suggested informally that there were no current plans to do so. According to international human rights contacts, Badawi declared a hunger strike in September to protest his poor treatment and lack of medical attention while in prison. In December he reportedly went on a second hunger strike to protest his placement in solitary confinement.

The government continued to imprison individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic, and sorcery. In January local media reported authorities arrested an Arab expatriate of unspecified nationality for sorcery.

In April, authorities detained Thumar al-Marzouqi, Mohammed al-Sadiq, and Bader al-Ibrahim, who wrote in the past on the discrimination faced by Shia in the country. By year’s end, authorities had not filed official charges against them and they remained in detention. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, al-Sadiq and al-Ibrahim write regularly for Al-Arabi al-Jadeed, a Qatari funded news website based in London, while al-Marzouqi published articles on his own blog as well as contributing to Al-Arabi al-Jadeed and to the Okaz newspaper.

During the year, the SCC continued trials against some clerics, academics, and members of the media for alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The accused included prominent Muslim scholars Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari. The three were arrested in 2017. According to Saudi and international rights groups, the public prosecutor sought the death penalty against them. The public prosecutor leveled 37 charges against al-Odah, the vast majority of which were connected to his alleged ties with the MB and the Qatari government, and his public support for imprisoned dissidents. In reviewing some of the specific charges, HRW noted, “The initial charges are mostly related to his alleged ties to the MB and other organizations supposedly connected to it.” The 30 charges against al-Omari included “forming a youth organization to carry out the objectives of a terrorist group inside the Kingdom.” The government continued to regard the MB as a terrorist organization. Amnesty International reported al-Odah was ill-treated while in prison, including solitary confinement.

On May 18, authorities released Shia cleric Tawfiq al-Amer from prison after he completed his eight-year jail term. Officers arrested al-Amer in 2011 and the SCC convicted him in August 2014 of slander against the state and abuse of the faith, stirring up sectarian strife, and calling for change in a series of sermons delivered in 2011.

In March authorities detained Shia cleric Majed al-Sadah for three days over comments criticizing concerts sponsored by the government’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA) in his hometown of Saihat, Qatif Governorate. According to online activists, al-Sadah had to sign a written pledge to refrain from interfering in internal affairs. According to Al-Jazeera, authorities arrested cleric Omar al-Muqbil in September after he criticized music concerts sponsored by GEA, calling them a threat to the kingdom’s culture, according to the Prisoners of Conscience rights group. Al-Muqbil described in a video the GEA’s actions as “erasing the original identity of society.”

A court sentenced an Indian national to 10 years for “misusing social media,” “blasphemy,” and “hurting the religious and national sentiment of the Kingdom.”

During the year, social media reported the SCC held many hearings in the trial of influential religious scholar Safar al-Hawali. The government detained al-Hawali along with three of his sons in 2018. Al-Hawali, often linked to the MB, rose to prominence 25 years ago as a leader of the Sahwa (Awakening) movement, which agitated to bring democracy to the country and criticized the ruling family for corruption, social liberalization, and working with the West.

During the year, the SCC held at least five hearings on the case of cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, described by HRW as a religious reformer, in detention since September 2017. In 2018, the public prosecutor sought the death penalty for al-Maliki on 14 charges, including calling into question the fundamentals of Islam by casting doubt on prophetic Sunna and hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Mohammed), propagating deviant beliefs, holding an impure (takfiri) ideology, insulting the rulers and CSS and labeling them as extremists, glorifying the Khomeini-led revolution in Iran, and supporting Hizballah and ISIS.

In February Deputy Governor of Makkah Province Badr bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz ordered the arrest of comedian Yasir Bakr for allegedly mocking the CPVPV at an entertainment event in Jeddah. Bakr, founder of Al-Comedy Club in Jeddah, later appeared in a video on Twitter apologizing for his comments.

On April 20, local media reported that the public prosecutor summoned a man for investigation regarding a tweet that “disturbed public order” under the Anti-Cyber Crime Law. According to press reports, the man tweeted a call for all women in the country wearing a niqab to come together at Riyadh Boulevard in order to burn them, according to media reports.

On June 23, authorities arrested Dammam-based Shia cleric Sheikh Abdullatif Hussain al-Nasser when he attempted to travel to Bahrain. The government provided no reason for his arrest. Security officials interrogated Abdullatif and then transferred him to the State Security Prison in Dammam, according to activists.

On June 27, the SCC held the first hearing for three Shia men, Ramzi al-Jamal, Ali Hasan al-Zayyed, and Mohammed Issa al-Labbad, who turned themselves in to security authorities in 2017 after their names appeared on a list of 23 individuals wanted by the authorities. The public prosecutor sought the death penalty for the three on protest-related charges, according to ESOHR and activists.

Human rights NGOs and legal experts continued to criticize antiterrorism laws for using overly broad and vague language, making them susceptible to politicization and other abuse.

The government continued to prohibit the public practice of any non-Islamic religion. According to civil society sources and media reports, non-Muslims and many foreign and local Muslims whose religious practices differed from the form of Sunni Islam promoted by the government could only practice their religion in private and remained vulnerable to detention, discrimination, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation. According to members of the expatriate community, some Christian congregations were able to conduct large Christian worship services discreetly and regularly without substantial interference from the CPVPV or other government authorities.

The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance on the substance of Friday sermons; it restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons considered sectarian, political, or extremist, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy. Mosques continued to be the only legally permissible public places of worship. The government continued to address ideology it deemed extremist by scrutinizing clerics and teachers closely and dismissing those found promoting views it deemed intolerant, extreme, or advocating violence. The MOIA continued to use ministry inspectors, regional branch inspectors, field teams, citizen feedback, and the media to monitor and address any violations of the ministry’s instructions and regulations in mosques. MOIA oversight of mosques in less populated areas was not always as strict as it was in urban areas. In 2018 the MOIA created a hotline for individuals to report statements by imams that observers considered objectionable. A May article in a government-linked newspaper described the hotline as a 24/7 service to report “undisciplined imams and mosques that need maintenance.” In 2018 the MOIA launched a mobile phone app called Masajed (mosques) which monitors sermons and allows mosque-goers to rate their preacher on a number of aspects of their work.

In March the Council of Ministers approved a new regulation for imams and muezzins of the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina stipulating that the clerics be “moderate,” among other requirements.

Practices diverging from the government’s official interpretation of Islam, such as public celebrations of Mawlid al-Nabi (the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad) and visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, remained forbidden. Some Shia community members reported that Shia pilgrims were permitted to celebrate Eid al-Ghadir, a Shia-specific holiday, after the Hajj. Sources also stated that Shia pilgrims were permitted to approach, but not touch, the graves of the four Shia imams buried in the al-Baqi Cemetery in Medina for a period of two hours after morning prayers and two hours after noon prayers.

Since 2016, authorities have permitted large-scale public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, home to the largest Shia population in the country. These commemorations included significant deployment of government security personnel in the Qatif area during the Ashura commemoration in September. According to community members, processions and gatherings appeared to increase over previous years due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities.

According to government policy, non-Muslims generally were prohibited from being buried in the country. There is, however, a public, non-Islamic cemetery in Jeddah, although the government did not support it financially. There also is a private, non-Muslim cemetery only available to Saudi Aramco employees. Diplomatic missions reported most non-Muslims opted to repatriate their deceased to their home countries whenever financially possible.

In mixed neighborhoods of Sunni and Shia residents, authorities generally required all mosques, including Shia mosques, to use the Sunni call to prayer. In predominantly Shia areas such as Qatif, however, and in some Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate in the Eastern Province, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Twelver Shia variant of the call to prayer. In smaller Shia villages, community members stated it was common for Shia businesses to close for three prayer times (not five times per Sunni practice), or in some instances not to close at all.

The government continued to set policy aimed at enforcing Islamic norms; for example, the government prohibited eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan. According to media reports, the government prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic.

The government did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for graduates of some Shia religious centers of instruction for employment credit, while the government generally recognized graduates of Sunni religious training institutions for government positions and religious jobs.

The government continued a multi-year project, begun in 2007, to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods with the stated aim of removing content disparaging religions other than Islam. The Institute for Gulf Studies found that Saudi textbooks in 2019 were still teaching students that “Christians, Jews, and other Muslims are ‘enemies’ of the true believer, and to befriend and show respect only to other true believers, specifically the Wahhabis.” According to the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, Saudi textbooks in 2019 taught students “to consider Jews ‘monkeys’ and ‘assassins’ bent on harming Muslim holy places, and to punish gays by death.” Shia community representatives in the Eastern Province reported throughout 2018-19 that textbooks no longer disparaged Shia beliefs. The Anti-Defamation League reported the newest edition of textbooks for the fall of 2019 continued to contain problematic passages.

Some travelers entering the country reported they were able to import a Bible for personal use, but the government regularly exercised its ability to inspect and confiscate personal non-Islamic religious materials.

Some academic experts reported the government continued to exclude perspectives at variance with the Salafi tradition within Sunni Islam from its extensive government-owned religious media and broadcast programming.

The government continued to block certain websites as part of a broader policy of censoring online content that contained “objectionable” content such as views of religion it considered extremist or ill-informed. The government shut down or blocked Twitter accounts for users “committing religious and ethical violations,” and authorities arrested an undisclosed number of social media users in accordance with the anti-cybercrimes law. The government also located and shut down websites used to recruit jihadis or inspire violence. In 2017 authorities announced they unblocked the calling features of certain private messenger apps, including Viber, FaceTime, and Facebook Messenger. Some users reported that the calling features of WhatsApp and Skype still remained blocked.

Shia Muslims managed their own mosques under the supervision of Shia scholars. Most existing Shia mosques in the Eastern Province did not seek official operating licenses, as doing so would require asking the government to approve extension of endorsement of these mosques, according to some NGO reports. The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques; Shia congregations self-funded construction, maintenance, and repairs. Authorities prohibited Shia Muslims outside of the Eastern Province from building Shia-specific mosques. Construction of Shia mosques required government approval, and Shia communities were required to receive permission from their neighbors to start construction on mosques. Authorities allowed Shia communities to rebuild a mosque in Taroot, near Qatif, during the year. Two Shia mosques in Dammam remained licensed by the government and served approximately 750,000 worshippers. There continued to be no licensed Shia mosques in major urban centers such as Jeddah, Riyadh, or al-Khobar. Shia in those areas were therefore forced to hold prayers in private homes and community centers, where some Shia said they were subject to police harassment. Expatriate Shia reported threats of arrest and deportation if they gathered privately in large groups to worship and were detected by authorities.

Following ISIS attacks against Shia mosques and gathering places in 2015, security services continued to provide protection for many Shia mosques and gathering places in the Eastern Province. Additionally, media and other sources reported coordination between Shia volunteers and government security services to ensure security outside mosques and other gathering places during Friday sermons or other large public events.

Multiple reports from Shia groups cited discrimination in the judicial system as the catalyst for lengthy prison sentences handed down to Shia Muslims for engaging in political expression or organizing peaceful demonstrations. The government permitted Shia judges in the Eastern Province to use the Ja’afari school of Islamic jurisprudence to adjudicate cases in family law, inheritance, and endowment management. There were five Shia judges, all government-appointed, located in the Eastern Province cities of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where the majority of Twelver Shia live. Community sources reported Sunni judges sometimes completely disregarded or refused to hear testimony by Shia Muslims.

Reported instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur, particularly with respect to educational and public sector employment opportunities. Shia stated they experienced systemic government discrimination in hiring. There was no formal policy concerning the hiring and promotion of Shia in the private sector, but some Shia stated public universities and employers discriminated against them, occasionally by identifying an applicant for education or employment as Shia simply by inquiring about the applicant’s hometown. Many Shia stated that openly identifying as Shia would negatively affect career advancement.

Representation of Shia Muslims in senior government positions continued to be well below their proportion of the population, including in national security-related positions in the Ministry of Defense, the National Guard, and the MOI. The 35-member cabinet contained one Shia minister, Mohammed bin Faisal Abu Saq, a Shia Ismaili, who has held the position of Minister of State for Shura Affairs since 2014. There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, ministry branch directors, or security commanders. There were seven Shia members of the 150-member Shura Council. A small number of Shia Muslims occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies.

Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia Muslims were concentrated, had significant proportions of Shia members, including in the two major Shia population centers of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia Muslims held 16 of the 30 elected seats on the municipal councils. Eastern Province Shia judges dealing with intra-Shia personal status and family laws operated specialized courts. Shia Muslims were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard. In predominantly Shia areas, there was some Shia representation in the ranks of the traffic police, municipal government, and public schools. According to HRW, the Saudi government systematically discriminated against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis, including in the justice system, education, and employment.

According to international human rights groups, Shia Muslims were not represented in proportion to their percentage of the population in academic positions in primary, secondary, and higher education, and virtually all public school principals remained Sunni, although some teachers were Shia. Along with Sunni students, Shia students received government scholarships to study in universities abroad under the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Program for Foreign Scholarship.

There were continued media reports that some Sunni clerics, who received government stipends, used anti-Semitic and religiously intolerant language in their sermons. Reports of government-employed clerics using anti-Semitic language in their sermons, including some instances at Friday prayers in Mecca, reportedly were rare and occurred without authorization by government authorities. During the year, the MOIA issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons. Unlicensed imams, however, continued to employ intolerant views in internet postings or unsanctioned sermons in areas without government monitoring.

The government’s stated policy remained for its diplomatic and consular missions abroad to inform foreign workers applying for visas that they had the right to worship privately and to possess personal religious materials. The government also provided the names of offices where grievances could be filed.

The government required noncitizen legal residents to carry an identity card containing a religious designation of “Muslim” or “non-Muslim.” Some residency cards, including some issued during the year, indicated other religious designations such as “Christian.”

The government hosted many Jewish and Christian religious leaders, but did not officially permit most non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services. Entry restrictions made it difficult for non-Muslims to maintain regular contact with resident clergy, according to non-Muslim religious groups in neighboring countries. Catholic and Orthodox Christians, whose religious traditions require they receive sacraments from a priest on a regular basis, continued to hold low-profile services without government harassment, although they reportedly found restrictions on clergy travel particularly problematic. Authorities also allowed regular visits by the Catholic bishop, resident in Bahrain, who has responsibility for Catholics in the country, and by evangelical Protestant leaders.

In November the Presidency of State Security released a video on Twitter that categorized feminism, homosexuality, and atheism as extremist ideas. The animated clip said “all forms of extremism and perversion are unacceptable.” It also included takfir, the practice by some Muslims of labeling followers of other schools of Islam unbelievers, among the categories of unacceptable behavior. The security agency later deleted the post and said the video contained “many mistakes” while suggesting that those behind it would face a formal investigation, according to a statement posted by the official press agency.

According to NGO reports, Umm al-Qura University’s Department of Islamic Studies continued to teach a course on Judaism saying that Jews rely on three texts: “The Torah, The Talmud, [and] The Protocols of [the Elders of] Zion.” In addition, the reports characterized the university’s course curriculum as heavily anti-Semitic, speaking of the “evil traits” of the Jewish people.

On April 5, August 23, October 11, and December 27, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a CSS member, delivered Friday sermons in the Holy Mosque in Makkah in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.”

In May the Muslim World League’s (MWL) Secretary-General Mohammed al-Issa called for the protection of followers of religions and places of worship after the terrorist attack on a Jewish temple in California and previous terrorist crimes. Al-Issa offered condolences to a number of Jewish religious leaders in New York.

During the May MWL International Conference on Moderation in Islam in Mecca, King Salman called for encouraging “concepts of tolerance and moderation, while strengthening the culture of consensus and reconciliation.” He added that the country was founded on values of moderation. The conference adopted the “Mecca Charter,” which calls for laws “to deter the promotion of hatred, the instigation of violence and terrorism, or a clash of civilizations, which foster religious and ethnic disputes.”

During the year, some Qatari nationals again reported being unable to perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage due to logistical obstacles stemming from border closures and restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt on Qatar in 2017. The Saudi Press Agency announced that Qataris and foreign residents of Qatar would be allowed to land at Jeddah or Medina airports to perform the Hajj. The government offered Qatari pilgrims internet registration and visa issuance on arrival in Jeddah and Medina. In May, however, the government of Qatar stated that the Saudi government continued to deny Qatar-based religious tour operators’ access to Saudi Arabia to make Hajj and Umrah arrangements for pilgrims. Deputy Minister of Hajj and Umrah Abdul Fattah Mashat said that the government rejected the politicization of the holy rituals, adding that it has never barred any nationalities from performing them.

On September 10, the crown prince met with U.S. evangelical Christian figures in Jeddah. Following the meeting, the group met with MWL Secretary-General Mohammed al-Issa to discuss ways both parties could counter extremism and exchanged ideas on possible initiatives and programs to increase mutual respect at the grass roots level. The delegation and the MWL agreed in a joint statement to promote respect for religions and mutual trust and to encourage religious harmony.

On April 28, al-Issa visited a New York synagogue, the first such trip by an MWL leader to a Jewish house of worship in the United States, and signed an agreement with the NGO Appeal of Conscience Foundation supporting the protection of religious sites around the world. On April 30, al-Issa signed a memorandum of understanding with American Jewish Committee (AJC) in which the MWL and AJC agreed “to further Muslim-Jewish understanding and cooperate against racism and extremism in all its forms.” In May the MWL invited a Jewish delegation to visit the country in January 2020. Al-Issa said discussions during the visit, the first ever by a Jewish group, would address the issue of Holocaust denial.

In November the Saudi Press Agency reported that al-Issa visited Utah and met with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to discuss “ways of supporting bridging relations between followers of religions and cultures to promote peace and positive harmony.”

At the annual Jeddah International Book Fair, several vendors sold anti-Semitic material, including The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Mein Kampf. Additional titles were observed that linked Jews to conspiracies.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to press and NGO reports, in February in Medina, an unidentified man beheaded a six-year-old boy on the street in front of his mother, reportedly because he was a Shia. Local media reported the public prosecutor’s office in Medina assured the victim’s family that it was investigating the perpetrator.

Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, which sometimes included making disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” In addition, terms like “rejectionists” (of the first three caliphs that Sunni Muslims recognize as the Prophet Mohammed’s legitimate successors), which Shia consider insulting, were commonly found in public discourse. In September an academic at Qassim University, Ahmed al-Hassan, called in a tweet for rooting out Shia from the holy city of Medina, stating that “myths and self-flagellation of Persians has reached the holiest place on earth… They must be uprooted and eradicated before this disease spreads.” In January cleric Nasser Saleh al-Muazaini named Shia “rejectionists” in a tweet. In February another tweet described Shia as “enemies of God” and “infidels.”

Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in private sector employment.

Community members reported that individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity almost always did so in secret, fearing the reactions of family members and the threat of criminal charges, up to and including execution. The NGO Open Doors reported that women in particular feared loss of parental rights or being subjected to physical abuse as a result of converting from Islam.

Anti-Semitic comments occasionally appeared in the media. In January columnist Muhammad al-Sa’idi wrote in an article in Al-Watan newspaper that Jews deliberately promote the publication and circulation of anti-Semitic literature in Arab countries that describes them as secretly running the world “in order to convince the Arabs of their power and thereby demoralize and frighten them.” When the same literature appears in the West, he added, the Jews fight it in order to maintain their positive image and present themselves as victims.”

On March 3, journalist and businessman Hussein Shobakshi wrote in his column in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat Arabic daily, owned by a member of the royal family, of the “deeply rooted hatred of Jews in Islamic culture,” in which the term “Jew” is strongly derogatory. He stated, “Anti-Semitism in the Arab world is the product of loathsome, racist education that is rooted in the Arab mentality that is used to labeling people according to tribal, family, and racial affiliation, and according to the religious school to which they belong.”

On April 5 and August 23, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a CSS member, delivered Friday sermons in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.” His prayer included, “Oh Allah, show us the wonders of Your might and ability inflicted upon them.”

In May columnist Mansour al-Nugaidan, who U.S. National Public Radio described as a former “jihadi” turned “moderate,” said in an interview with Dubai-based Rotana Khalijiah TV channel “atheism is a faith that should be respected because it’s man’s choice.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In his address to the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on July 18, the Vice President called on the government to release blogger Raif Badawi, stating Badawi and others “stood in defense of religious liberty, the exercise of their faith, despite unimaginable pressure.” The Vice President added the United States calls on Saudi Arabia to “respect the freedom of conscience and let these men go.” Senior embassy and consulate general officers pressed the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority religious practices and beliefs. The Ambassador and embassy officers engaged Saudi leaders and officials at all levels on religious freedom and tolerance. The Ambassador and embassy officers raised religious freedom principles and cases with the HRC, members of the Shura Council, the MFA, the MOIA, the Muslim World League, and other ministries and agencies during the year. Senior embassy and consulate officials raised reports of abuses and violations of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detention, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards. They also discussed the importance of respect for the rights of minorities and their religious practices.

Senior embassy and consulate officials continued to query the legal status of detained or imprisoned individuals and discussed religious freedom concerns, such as religious assembly and importation of religious materials, with members of religious minorities, including Shia and citizens who no longer consider themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Turkey

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as a secular state. It provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, conviction, expression, and worship and prohibits discrimination based on religious grounds. The Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), a state institution, governs and coordinates religious matters related to Islam; its mandate is to promote and enable the practice of Islam. The government continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities, especially those not recognized under the government’s interpretation of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which includes only Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. Media outlets and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported an accelerated pace of entry bans and deportations of non-Turkish citizen leaders of Protestant congregations. The government did not recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service. In January the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled the government violated the European Convention on Human Rights because it refused to allow Seventh-day Adventists to establish a foundation. In October a court ruled the Ministry of Interior and the eastern city of Malatya, Malatya Governorate, were not liable in a 2007 case involving the killings of three persons in an attack on a Christian publishing house. The Armenian Apostolic Orthodox community elected a new patriarch in December; members of the community and rights organizations criticized government interference in the election process. Minority communities continued to object to the prevention of governing board elections for religious foundations. The government continued to restrict efforts of minority religious groups to train their clergy, and the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary remained closed. Religious minorities again reported difficulties opening or operating houses of worship; resolving land and property disputes and legal challenges of churches whose lands the government previously expropriated; operating or opening houses of worship; and obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion classes in schools. The government did not return any church properties seized in previous decades. Religious minorities, particularly members of the Alevi community, raised challenges to religious content and practices in the public education system. In March President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly raised the possibility the status of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul could be changed from a museum to a mosque. With President Erdogan in attendance, the Syriac Orthodox community broke ground in August on a new church in Istanbul, the first newly constructed church since the country became a republic in 1923. In May President Erdogan inaugurated the country’s largest mosque, which may accommodate up to 63,000. The government continued to provide security support for religious minority communities and paid for the renovation and restoration of some registered religious properties.

In May a Muslim televangelist associated with a private television station converted a 13-year-old Armenian boy living in Turkey to Islam during a live broadcast without his parents’ permission. Members of the Armenian community and members of parliament (MPs) denounced the action. According to media reports, isolated acts of vandalism of places of worship continued to occur. In October unidentified individuals wrote on the door of the home of the president of Bursa’s Pir Sultan Abdal Association, an Alevi organization, “It is your time for death.” In February an unidentified person or persons sprayed graffiti on the Surp Hreshdagabet Armenian Church in the Balat District of Istanbul with derogatory messages on the door and walls. Anti-Semitic discourse continued in public dialogue, particularly on social media. In July a video posted on social media showed children at an apparent summer camp being led in chants calling for “death to Jews.” In January the premier of the film Cicero generated controversy and condemnation when the scenery for the premier’s red-carpet walk depicted features of a concentration camp, including striped uniforms draped on barbed-wire fencing and guard dogs. Some progovernment news outlets published conspiracy theories involving Jews and blamed Jews for the country’s economic difficulties and potential sanctions. In October social media users and media outlets shared photographs of anti-Christian and anti-Semitic posters hung at municipal bus stops in the central Anatolian town of Konya by the local branches of the Anatolian Youth Association and National Youth Foundation. In December the local prosecutor’s office in Konya said in a statement it would not pursue prosecution in the case because the act in question did not present “a clear and eminent threat to the public safety.”

The Ambassador, visiting senior U.S. officials, and other embassy and consulate officials continued to engage with government officials to emphasize the importance of respect for religious diversity and equal treatment under the law. Embassy and consulate representatives and visiting U.S. government officials urged the government to lift restrictions on religious groups, make progress on property restitution, and address specific cases of religious discrimination. Senior officials continued to call on the government to allow the reopening of Halki Seminary and to allow for the training of clergy members from all communities in the country. Embassy and consulate officials also met with a wide range of religious community leaders, including those of the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Alevi, and Syriac Orthodox communities, to underscore the importance of religious freedom and interfaith tolerance and to condemn discrimination against members of any religious group.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 81.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the government, 99 percent of the population is Muslim, approximately 77.5 percent of which is Hanafi Sunni. Representatives of other religious groups estimate their members represent 0.2 percent of the population, while the most recent public opinion surveys published in January by Turkish research firm KONDA suggest approximately 3 percent of the population self-identifies as atheist and 2 percent as nonbelievers.

Leaders of Alevi foundations estimate Alevis comprise 25 to 31 percent of the population; Pew Research Center reporting indicates 5 percent of Muslims state they are Alevis. The Shia Jafari community estimates its members make up 4 percent of the population.

Non-Muslim religious groups are mostly concentrated in Istanbul and other large cities, as well as in the southeast. Exact figures are not available; however, these groups self-report approximately 90,000 Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians (including migrants from Armenia); 25,000 Roman Catholics (including migrants from Africa and the Philippines); and 16,000 Jews. There are also approximately 25,000 Syrian Orthodox Christians (also known as Syriacs); 15,000 Russian Orthodox Christians (mostly immigrants from Russia who hold residence permits); and 10,000 Baha’is.

Estimates of other groups include fewer than 1,000 Yezidis; 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses; 7,000-10,000 members of Protestant denominations; fewer than 3,000 Chaldean Christians; and up to 2,500 Greek Orthodox Christians. There also are small, undetermined numbers of Bulgarian Orthodox, Nestorian, Georgian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, and Maronite Christians. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) estimates its membership at 300 individuals.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, conviction, expression, and worship. It stipulates individuals may not be compelled to participate in religious ceremonies or disclose their religion, and acts of worship may be conducted freely as long as they are not directed against the “integrity of the state.” The constitution prohibits discrimination on religious grounds and exploitation or abuse of “religion or religious feelings, or things held sacred by religion” or “even partially basing” the order of the state on religious tenets.

The constitution establishes the Diyanet, through which the state coordinates Islamic matters. According to the law, the Diyanet’s mandate is to enable and promote the belief, practices, and moral principles of Islam, with a primary focus on Sunni Islam; educate the public about religious issues; and administer mosques. The Diyanet operates under the Office of the President, with its head appointed by the president and administered by a 16-person council elected by clerics and university theology faculties. The Diyanet has five main departments, called high councils: Religious Services, Hajj and Umrah Services, Education, Publications, and Public Relations. While the law does not require that all members of the council be Sunni Muslim, in practice this has been the case.

There is no separate blasphemy law; the penal code provides punishment for “provoking people to be rancorous and hostile,” including showing public disrespect for religious beliefs. The penal code prohibits religious clergy from “reproaching or vilifying” the government or the laws of the state while performing their duties. Violations are punishable by prison terms of one month to one year, or three months to two years if the crime involves inciting others to disobey the law.

The law criminalizes “insulting values held sacred by a religion,” interfering with a religious group’s services, or defacing its property. Insulting a religion is punishable by six months to one year in prison.

Although registration with the government is not mandatory for religious groups to operate, registering the group is required to request legal recognition for places of worship. Gaining legal recognition requires permission from the municipalities for the construction or designation of a new place of worship. It is against the law to hold religious services at a location not recognized by the government as a place of worship; the government may fine or close the venues of those violating the law.

Interfering with the service of a religious group is punishable by one to three years in prison; defacing religious property is punishable by three months to one year in prison; and destroying or demolishing religious property is punishable by one to four years in prison. Because it is illegal to hold religious services in places not registered as places of worship, in practice, these legal proscriptions apply only to recognized religious groups.

The law prohibits Sufi and other religious-social orders (tarikats) and lodges (cemaats), although the government generally does not enforce these restrictions.

Military service is obligatory for males; there is no provision for conscientious objection. A government policy allows individuals to pay a fee of 31,343 Turkish Lira (TL) ($5,300) instead of performing full military service; however, they are required to complete a three-week basic training program. Those who oppose mandatory military service on religious grounds may face charges in military and civilian courts and, if convicted, could be subject to prison sentences ranging from two months to two years.

The leadership and administrative structures of religious communities do not have a legal personality, leaving them unable to directly buy or hold title to property or press claims in court. Communities rely on separate foundations or associations governed by individual boards to hold and administer assets and property.

A 1935 law prohibits the establishment of foundations based on the religion or ethnicity of members but grants exemptions to foundations existing before the enactment of the law. Non-Muslim citizens direct these longstanding foundations; 167 continue to exist, the majority of which are associated with the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish communities. In practice, a religious group formed after the 1935 law may successfully apply to register as an association or foundation provided its stated objective is charitable, educational, or cultural rather than religious. According to the Protestant community, there are six foundations (four existing before the passage of the 1935 foundation law), 36 associations, and more than 30 representative offices linked with these associations.

The General Directorate of Foundations (GDF), under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, regulates the activities and affiliated properties of all foundations, and it assesses whether they are operating within the stated objectives of their organizational statute. There are several categories of foundations, including those religious community foundations existing prior to the 1935 law.

If a foundation becomes inactive, the government may petition the courts to rule it is no longer operational and transfer its assets to the state. Only a court order may close a foundation of any category, except under a state of emergency, during which the government may close foundations by decree. The state of emergency instituted in 2016 ended in July 2018, but laws similar to regulations during the state of emergency remain in force.

A foundation may earn income through companies and rent-earning properties, as well as from donations. The process for establishing a foundation is lengthier and more expensive than that for establishing an association, but associations have fewer legal rights than foundations at the local level.

Associations must be nonprofit and receive financial support only in the form of donations. To register as an association, a group must submit an application to the provincial governor’s office with supporting documentation, including bylaws and a list of founding members. A group must also obtain permission from the Ministry of the Interior as part of its application if a foreign association or nonprofit organization is a founding member; if foreigners are founding members of the group, the group must submit copies of its residence permits. If the governorate finds the bylaws unlawful or unconstitutional, the association must change the bylaws to meet the legal requirements. Under the law, the governorate may fine or otherwise punish association officials for actions deemed to violate the organization’s bylaws. Only a court order may close an association, except under a state of emergency, during which the government may close associations as well as foundations by decree. The civil code requires associations not to discriminate on the grounds of religion, ethnicity, or race.

By law prisoners have the right to practice their religion while incarcerated; however, not all prisons have dedicated places of worship. According to the law, prison authorities must allow religious groups visitation by clergy members and allow them to offer books and other materials that are part of the prisoner’s faith.

The constitution establishes compulsory religious and moral instruction in public and private schools at all levels starting with fourth grade, with content determined by the Ministry of National Education’s Department of Religious Instruction, which falls under the authority of the Office of the Presidency. Religion classes are two hours per week for students in grades four through 12. Only students who marked “Christian” or “Jewish” on their national identity cards may apply for an exemption from religion classes. Atheists, agnostics, Alevis, or other non-Sunni Muslims, Baha’is, Yezidis, or those who left the religion section blank on their national identity card are not exempt from the classes. Middle and high school students may take additional Islamic religious courses as electives for two hours per week during regular school hours.

The government continues to issue chip-enabled national identity cards that contain no visible section to identify religious affiliation. The information on religious affiliation is recorded in the chip and remains visible to authorized public officials as “qualified personal data” and protected as private information. National identity cards issued in the past, which continue in circulation and only require replacement if the card is damaged, the bearer has changed marriage status, or the individual is no longer recognizable in the photograph, contain a space for religious identification with the option of leaving the space blank. These older cards included the following religious identities as options: Muslim, Greek Orthodox, non-Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist, No Religion, or Other. Baha’i, Alevi, Yezidi, and other religious groups with known populations in the country were not options.

According to labor law, private and public sector employers may not discriminate against employees based on religion. Employees may seek legal action against an employer through the Labor Court. If an employee can prove a violation occurred, the employee may be entitled to compensation of up to four months of salary in addition to the reversal of the employment decision.

Government Practices

Multiple monitoring organizations and media outlets, including Middle East Concern, International Christian Concern, World Watch Monitor, Mission Network News, and Voice of Martyrs, reported entry bans, denial of residency permit extensions, and deportations for long-time residents affiliated with Protestant churches in the country. On December 2, the Ministry of Interior’s Directorate for Migration Management (DGMM) announced that as of January 1, 2020, the government would deny extension requests to long-term residents for tourist purposes, in the absence of another reason to request a residency permit (i.e. marriage, work, study). Several religious minority ministers, including Christians, conducted religious services while resident in in the country on long-term tourist residence permits. While similar measures occurred in previous years, multiple groups said they perceived a significant increase in the number of removals and entry bans during the year.

Multiple reports said these Protestant communities could not train clergy in the country and relied on foreign volunteers to serve them. Local Protestant communities stated they aimed to develop indigenous Turkish leaders in their congregations because it was becoming increasingly difficult to rely on foreign volunteers; however, they faced difficulties because they could not operate training facilities in-country. Community sources also said some of the deportations and entry bans during the year targeted foreign-citizen members of the community who had lived legally, as long-term residents, in the country for decades and who had previously not experienced any immigration difficulties. According to community members, these immigration procedures also affected a local community’s ability to raise funds for local churches because foreign clergy members attracted individual donations and support from church communities in their countries of origin. Some of the individuals with entry bans or resident permit denials requested review of their immigration status through the country’s legal system. None of the cases reached conclusion by year’s end and could take several years to resolve due to the complexities of and backlog in the judicial system, according to media reports.

According to a report by the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, released and presented to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on September 19, 63 Jehovah’s Witnesses faced prosecution as conscientious objectors, with 44 individuals facing 177 different charges and fines totaling more than $54,000. The report stated a person may be called for military service multiple times per year and charged as a “draft evader” because there was no form of approved alternative service in the country. The report also stated the Ministry of Defense sent letters to the individual’s employer to encourage the termination of his or her employment.

The decision by the Church of Jesus Christ to remove its volunteers and international staff from the country remained in effect throughout the year. In April 2018 the Church cited safety reasons as the reason for the removal. According to local members, some followers stayed away from church because they feared retribution and discrimination. Some said they had lost their jobs, including in the public sector, because of their faith, and they experienced difficulties in finding new employment.

The government continued to treat Alevi Islam as a heterodox Muslim “sect” and not to recognize Alevi houses of worship (cemevis), despite a ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeals that cemevis are places of worship. In March 2018, the head of Diyanet said mosques were the appropriate places of worship for both Alevis and Sunnis.

In December the Armenian community elected Bishop Sahak Masalyan as the 85th Armenian Apostolic Patriarch of Istanbul. Some members of the community said in public statements and social media posts that the government’s involvement in the process and the community’s decision not to oppose the state-issued election regulations undermined the legitimacy of the process. In September the Ministry of Interior issued regulations governing the election of a new patriarch following the death of Mesrob II Mutafyan in March. According to public statements and media reports, multiple Church officials and rights groups widely criticized the regulations, stating they infringed on the community’s religious freedom by limiting eligible candidates to bishops currently serving within the patriarchate. The regulations also lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 and expanded the number of elected delegates from 89 to 120, which Church officials said they regarded as positive steps. In July the Constitutional Court published its ruling that the Istanbul governor’s decision to block the patriarchal elections in 2018 violated the right of religious freedom for the community. In February of that year, the Istanbul governor’s office denied a 2017 application by the Armenian Patriarchate to hold patriarchal elections, stating the patriarchate had not met the required conditions for an election since the patriarch had not passed away or resigned.

The government continued to provide training for Sunni Muslim clerics while restricting other religious groups from training clergy inside the country. Because of a lack of seminaries within the country, the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox Patriarchates remained unable to train clergy. Protestant churches also reported an inability to train clergy in the country made their communities dependent on foreign clergy. Local Protestant church representatives raised concerns that the government’s reported accelerated deportation of foreign clergy members hurt their community’s ability to instruct local clergy unable to travel abroad for training.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I again called on the government to allow the Halki Seminary to reopen as an independent institution to enable training of Greek Orthodox clergy in the country. A 1971 Constitutional Court ruling prohibited the operation of private institutions of higher education and led to the seminary’s closure. Amendments to the constitution in 1982 allowed for the establishment of private institutions of higher education but also placed significant restrictions on the institutions, and the seminary was not permitted to reopen and operate under its traditions. According to the ecumenical patriarch, the continued closure interrupted a tradition of instruction dating back centuries to the historical roots of the school as a monastery. In July 2018, the Diyanet announced plans to open an Islamic educational center on the same island as the shuttered seminary. At year’s end, the Diyanet had not taken further steps to advance the project.

According to media reports, several imams criticized the Diyanet for becoming increasingly politicized after those imams were dismissed from their posts, reportedly for not supporting the government. In statements to media, multiple former employees said the Diyanet did not apply its regulations fairly. The justification provided for the dismissals was a “breach of guidelines,” applicable to all imams, including neither praising nor criticizing political parties; however, some of the dismissed imams said the sanctions were not applied to those supporting the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). According to media reports, an imam lost his position after accepting an invitation to lead a prayer for an opposition party before the local elections on March 31.

In October the Diyanet established a radio and television commission tasked with reviewing products prepared by the Diyanet itself or public institutions, agencies or production companies.

The government continued to interpret the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which refers broadly to “non-Muslim minorities,” as granting special legal minority status exclusively to three recognized groups: Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. The government did not recognize the leadership or administrative structures of non-Muslim minorities, such as the Armenian Apostolic and the Ecumenical Patriarchates and Chief Rabbinate, as legal entities, leaving them unable to buy or hold title to property or to press claims in court. These three groups, along with other minority religious communities, had to rely on independent foundations they previously organized, overseen by separate governing boards, to hold and control individual religious properties.

Members of religious communities reported the inability to hold elections for the governing boards of their foundations remained an impediment to managing their affairs. They said when board members died, retired, or left the country, foundation boards had a more difficult time fulfilling their duties and ran the risk of eventually not functioning without new members. If they reached the point of no longer functioning, the government could then declare the foundation defunct and transfer its properties and other assets to the state.

In March the Directorate General of Foundations issued a decree allowing foundations to appoint members to their governing boards but did not issue new regulations to permit elections, which had been pending since 2013. The Freedom of Belief Initiative, a human rights project of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, said the action was contrary to the traditions of foundations in the country, describing it as further interference in the rights of religious communities. Some foundations stated they would not make use of the new order and instead would await new regulations to hold elections for their governing boards. According to local religious community representatives, without the ability to hold new elections, governing boards risked losing the ability to manage the activities and properties of their communities, and foundations could become inactive without newly elected leadership.

The trial of 13 individuals charged with conspiracy to commit a large-scale assault on an Izmit Protestant church and kill its pastor in 2013 continued throughout the year.

In January the ECHR ruled the government violated the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of assembly and association, because it refused to allow Seventh-day Adventists to establish a foundation. The court ruling required the government to pay six members of the congregation in Istanbul a total compensation of 8,724 euros ($9,800). Compensation could include legal assistance and legal and court registration fees; by year’s end there was no information available on whether the government had compensated the six individuals and no disclosure of any government payments.

According to media reports, in May a court released Uighur activist Abdulkadir Yapcan after nearly three years in detention, but he remained under judicial controls that limited his movements to his neighborhood in Istanbul. The deportation case against him continued at year’s end. In 2003 China listed Yapcan as one of its 11 most-wanted terrorists and accused him of supporting violence and founding a terrorist organization. Uighur activists and rights organizations, however, said the extradition request was punishment for his political positions. His defense attorney said China did not produce any evidence to substantiate its claims despite previous promises to do so, according to public statements to local media after the May hearing. In 2016 the ECHR ruled against removing Yapcan from Turkey during the ongoing court case due to concerns about his safety and potential refoulement to China should he be deported to a third country. In August media reports quoted Interior Minister Soylu stating, “We do not send anyone back to China if they face persecution.”

The government continued not to recognize Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I as the leader of the world’s approximately 300 million Orthodox Christians, consistent with the government’s stance that there was no legal obligation for it to do so. The government’s position remained that the ecumenical patriarch was only the religious leader of the country’s Greek Orthodox minority population. The government continued to permit only Turkish citizens to vote in the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Holy Synod or be elected patriarch but continued its practice of granting citizenship to Greek Orthodox metropolitans under the terms of the government’s 2011 stopgap solution intended to widen the pool of candidates eligible to become the next patriarch. The Istanbul Governorate, which represents the central government in that city, continued to maintain that leaders of the Greek Orthodox (Ecumenical Patriarchate), Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, and Jewish communities must be Turkish citizens.

The Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate continued to seek legal recognition, and their communities operated as conglomerations of individual religious foundations.

Multiple Protestant church representatives continued to report bureaucratic difficulties in registering places of worship. Church representatives said they had to continue meeting in unregistered locations for worship services. According to Protestant group representatives, local officials continued to impose zoning standards on churches, including minimum space requirements not imposed on mosques. Officials did not apply this requirement to Sunni Muslim congregations, which they permitted to build worship facilities in malls, airports, and other smaller spaces. Additionally, some Protestant churches reported local authorities did not allow them to display crosses on the exterior of their buildings.

In October a court ruled the Ministry of Interior and governorate of the eastern city of Malatya, Malatya Governorate, were not liable in a 2007 case involving the killings of three persons in an attack on a Christian publishing house in the city. Previously, a court had fined the two government agencies as part of a longstanding case. The lawyer of the victims’ families said they would appeal the October ruling. According to their lawyer, if the ruling held, the families would have to return compensation totaling 900,000 TL ($151,000) with interest to the ministry and the governorate.

In February an Istanbul court acquitted Berna Lacin on charges of insulting religious values, sometimes referred to locally as “blasphemy charges.” The charges stemmed from Lacin’s 2018 post on Twitter about the alleged number of rapes in Medina, Saudi Arabia. The tweet was in response to calls by the Grand Union Party, families of victims, and some newspapers to reinstate capital punishment for child abuse crimes following a wave of molestation reports in media. “If capital punishment was a solution, the city of Medina would not be breaking records in rape cases,” Lacin said in her post. In the indictment, the prosecutor said Lacin insulted people’s religious values and went beyond what was permissible under the law governing freedom of expression.

In February the ECHR rejected the country’s appeal to reduce the 54,400-euro ($61,100) compensation it was obligated to pay the Alevi Cem Foundation. The Cem Foundation took the government to the ECHR in 2010 for discrimination for not paying the electric bills of Alevi places of worship, a service provided for mosques. The government appealed for a fee reduction to 23,300 euros ($26,200). In November 2018 the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled cemevis are places of worship and therefore should receive the same benefits as Sunni mosques, including being exempt from paying utility bills. Alevi organizations continued to call on the government to comply with the ruling throughout the year.

In February the GDF announced restoration plans for, and began work on, the Surp Giragos Armenian and Mar Petyun Chaldean Churches, both in Surp District, Diyarbakir. The Kursunlu Mosque reopened in March following the completion of structural renovations. Religious communities challenged the government’s 2016 expropriation of their properties damaged in clashes between government security forces and the U.S. government-designated terrorist group Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The government expropriated those properties for its stated goal of “post-conflict reconstruction.” In September 2016, the GDF began restoring the expropriated Armenian Catholic Church; the restoration continued through year’s end, and the church was not accessible for public use. During the year, the government again did not pay restitution and compensation to the religious groups for the expropriation of property damaged in fighting with the PKK.

During the year, the government did not return properties seized in previous decades; it returned 56 properties to the Syriac community in 2018. Representatives from various communities said they continued to pursue property returns through the appropriate legal and government channels. From 2011, when the compensation law was passed, through 2013, when the period for submitting compensation applications expired, the GDF received 1,560 applications from religious minority foundations that sought compensation for seized properties. Because the period for submitting new applications expired in 2013, no new applications were filed during the year. In previous years, the GDF returned 333 properties and paid compensation for 21 additional properties. The GDF had rejected the other applications pending from 2011; it said the applications did not meet the criteria as outlined in the 2011 compensation law. The Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Jewish, Syrian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Georgian Orthodox, Chaldean, and Armenian Protestant communities, which had previously submitted applications for the return of properties, continued to say these unresolved claims were an issue for their communities. Due to their legal status, recognized religious foundations were eligible to receive compensation for their seized properties, but religious institutions and communities without legally recognized foundations were not.

According to media reports, in June the Ovacik District Governorate sent a letter to the muhtars (village leaders) of eight villages in the district ordering them to evacuate as soon as possible due to the villages “being in a natural disaster zone.” The district is home to many Alevis and their religious sites. According to media reports, the villages were scheduled for removal because the government had awarded a Canadian-Turkish mining consortium rights to conduct exploratory mining in Munzur National Park – a spiritual area for the Alevis containing many holy sites. The letter did not specify when the villages were to be evacuated; as of December there was no public update on the case.

In March President Erdogan raised the possibility that the status of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul could be changed from a museum to a mosque during a televised interview, adding that the name could change to Ayasophia Mosque. The government took no action following the president’s comments.

Progovernment newspaper Yeni Safak reported in November that the Council of State (the highest administrative court) ruled a former church and mosque now serving as the Chora Museum should be returned to its status as a mosque, sparking concerns in the global Christian community that this decision could pave the way for similar changes to the status of the Hagia Sophia. The museum, famed for its mosaics and frescos depicting Christian imagery, was originally constructed and repeatedly renovated as the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Savior in the fifth century and then converted into the Kariye Mosque in 1511 before becoming a museum in 1945. According to the Yeni Safak report, the Council of State determined the 1945 decision to designate the structure as a museum was illegal because it violated the charter of the foundation that owned the then-mosque; the charter stated the building would serve indefinitely as a mosque. Yeni Safak said the decision moved to the cabinet for action; no changes to the museum’s status were reported at year’s end.

Religious communities, particularly Alevis, continued to raise concerns about several of the government’s education policies. At year’s end, the government continued not to comply with a 2013 ECHR ruling that found the government’s compulsory religion courses in public schools violated educational freedom. The ECHR denied the government’s appeal of the ruling in 2015 and upheld the Alevi community’s legal claim that the government-mandated courses promoted Sunni Islam and were contrary to Alevi religious convictions. Authorities added material on Alevism to the religious course curriculum in 2011 after the ECHR decision, but Alevi groups stated the material was inadequate, and in some cases, incorrect. In February various Alevi organizations issued a joint statement: “Alevis respect all religions … but will keep their distance from those who ignore, limit or attempt to transform Alevism.” They also called on the government to implement the ECHR decisions.

Non-Sunni Muslims and secular Muslims said they continued to face difficulty obtaining exemptions from compulsory religious instruction in primary and secondary schools and often had to choose from electives dealing with different aspects of Sunni Islam, particularly if their identification cards listed their religion as Muslim. The government said the compulsory instruction covered a range of world religions, but some religious groups, including Alevis and members of Christian denominations, stated the courses largely reflected Hanafi Sunni Islamic doctrine and contained negative and incorrect information about other religious groups, such as some educational texts referring to Alevi beliefs as mysticism. In February the Konya Regional Administrative Court ruled the changes made in the compulsory religion course curriculum did not eliminate violations to educational freedom as ruled by the ECHR in 2013. In June the Istanbul 12th Regional Administrative Court accepted an Alevi parent’s appeal for his son’s exclusion from the compulsory religious course.

Members of other minority religious groups, including Protestants, said they continued to have difficulty obtaining exemptions from religion classes. Some rights groups said that because schools provided no alternative for students exempted from the compulsory religious instruction, those students stood out and as a result could face additional social stigma.

In March the Council of State ruled to end a three-year agreement between the Ministry of National Education and the Islamic Hizmet Foundation to provide “moral values” education in schools. The state council ruled the 2017 agreement contradicted a provision of the constitution that requires the conduct of education in state schools be performed by public sector employees. In September the ministry issued a new regulation enabling international organizations and NGOs to organize social activities in schools. In 2018 the teachers union Egitim-Sen applied to the Council of State, which hears cases seeking to change administrative policies of the government, to end the moral values education protocol, and stated conducting such programs during school hours would force students to attend regardless of religious affiliation.

According to media reports and public statements, in January administrators of an Istanbul public high school reprimanded with letters to their files 12 students for participating in a December 2018 demonstration where they stated “Islamist students supported by school principals” pressured them to attend “religious conversations” in their spare time. Egitim-Is, an education sector union, criticized the school administration and said the government had handed over secular schools to religious groups.

According to media reports, in January a religious culture and ethics teacher at a high school in Istanbul, Cemil Kilic, was suspended from duty reportedly after making public comments favorably comparing the morals of atheists and deists to those of “self-professed” Muslims and saying headscarves were not obligatory in Islam. In May he was allowed to resume his duties in the central province of Nigde while awaiting the ruling of a disciplinary committee. According to media reports, Kilic faced possible dismissal pending the outcome of the committee’s deliberations.

In January a headmaster in Ankara distributed a leaflet and issued a warning against teachers who wore high heels, stating it was against Islam. The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), demanded the headmaster’s removal from office. The headmaster subsequently issued an apology to the teachers.

In August Egitim-Sen stated only one of every five students was learning in gender-segregated classrooms. Egitim-Sen said this violated the rights of children living under a secular constitution and it contradicted the 2018 National Education Ministry regulation allowing separate classrooms for girls and boys in multiprogram (offering regular, technical, and vocation programs) high schools. Officials of the Ministry of Education denied allegations the regulation was a step towards creating single-gender classrooms in all schools. Multiprogram schools continued to bring regular, technical, and vocational high schools together in less populated areas where the requirement for the minimum number of students for each program could not be met.

The Mental Health Professionals’ Platform in February criticized the continuing assignment of Diyanet employees to university dormitories as an example of greater religious influence on the education system. It stated social services should not be provided by individuals without the appropriate professional background. In 2017 the Diyanet announced a plan to expand and make permanent a pilot program launched in 2016 to assign Diyanet employees, including imams, to university dormitories operated by the government in every province. The Diyanet stated the officials would provide “moral guidance” to address the “moral values” problems in the dorms and provide the Diyanet’s provincial muftis with performance reviews every six months.

The government continued to provide funding for public, private, and religious schools teaching Islam. It did not do so for minority schools recognized under the Lausanne Treaty, except to pay the salaries for courses taught in Turkish, such as Turkish literature. The minority religious communities funded all their other expenses through donations, including from church foundations and alumni.

The government continued to permit Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish religious community foundations to operate schools under the supervision of the Ministry of National Education. Children of undocumented Armenian migrants and Armenian refugees from Syria could also attend. Because the government continued to classify legal migrant and refugee children as “visitors,” they were ineligible to receive a diploma from these schools. The curricula of these schools included information unique to the cultures of the three groups and teachable in the minority groups’ languages. According to members of the Syriac Orthodox community, which has operated a preschool since 2014, the community was still unable to open additional schools for financial reasons. The government did not grant permission to other religious groups to operate schools.

Parents of some students again criticized the practice of converting some nonreligious public schools into imam hatip religious schools. Sources said this created a hurdle for those preferring to attend secular public schools because the number of imam hatip middle schools increased by more than one hundred and the number of students by nearly 40,000 for the 2018-2019 academic year, according to official statistics. These sources rejected government claims that demand drove the increase, and they said limited options often compelled nonreligious families to send students to the religious schools. The country’s 2019 investment program in the general budget included the government’s associated priorities, with 460 million TL ($77.42 million) allocated for new imam hatip schools, compared with TL 30 million ($5.05 million) for new science schools.

Many public buildings, including universities, continued to maintain small mosques. In June 2017, the Ministry of National Education issued a regulation requiring every new school to have an Islamic prayer room. The government continued to deny Alevis the right to establish similar places of worship in government buildings that did not contain places of worship for non-Sunnis. Alevi leaders reported the approximately 2,500 to 3,000 cemevis in the country were insufficient to meet demand. The government continued to state that Diyanet-funded mosques were available to Alevis and all Muslims, regardless of their school of religious thought.

In January several Alevi foundations requested the end of an ongoing program that takes school children ages six to 13 to local mosques for religious instruction during their two-week winter break. In 2018 the Ministry of National Education signed a contract with Server Youth and Sports Club for 50,000 children drawn from each of the 81 provinces to participate in the voluntary program. Alevi representatives said they objected to the program because students not participating could be “singled out” for not participating and as being different from the other students.

In November an IYI Party MP commented on a government official’s family’s “excessive” display of wealth on social media, posting “There is a group of people that have become rich due to their undeserved income and live luxuriously; we call them Protestant Muslims. These people have become Jews, mentally.” The post received widespread criticism from social media users and members of the Jewish community.

According to media reports, in February the Prophet Lovers Foundation (Peygamber Sevdalıları Vakfı), a group based in the southeast of the country, received permission to conduct religious examinations in public schools. One exam answer stated the concept of Jews and Christians going to heaven was a “poisonous idea.”

The government continued not to authorize clergy of religious groups designated as non-Islamic or heterodox Islam, including Alevi leaders (dedes), to register and officiate at marriages on behalf of the state. Imams received this authority in November 2017. Some critics continued to state the law solely addressed the demands of some within the Sunni Muslim majority and not the needs of other religious groups.

The Diyanet regulated the operation of all registered mosques. It paid the salaries of 107,206 Sunni personnel at the end of 2018, the most recent year for which data were available, compared with 109,332 in 2017. The government did not pay the salaries of religious leaders, instructors, or other staff belonging to other religious groups.

The government continued to provide land for the construction of Sunni mosques and to fund their construction through municipalities. According to the Diyanet’s most recent published statistics, there were 88,681 mosques in the country in 2018, compared with 88,021 Diyanet-operated mosques in 2107. In May President Erdogan inaugurated the largest mosque in the country. Located in Istanbul, it can accommodate 63,000. Although Alevi groups were able to build some new cemevis, the government continued to decline to provide financial support for their construction and maintenance in most cases.

In August leaders of the Syriac Orthodox community broke ground on the St. Ephrem (Mor Efrem) Church in Istanbul during a ceremony attended by President Erdogan and representatives of other religious communities. Once completed, it will be the first newly constructed church since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. To date, the approximately 18,000-member Syriac Orthodox community in Istanbul has used churches of other communities, in addition to its one current church, to hold services. Erdogan said the church would add “new richness” to the city and stated, “Our region has been the heart of religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity,” according to media reports. Community representatives said the project would not have been possible without the public support of the president.

The government continued to permit annual and other commemorative religious worship services at religiously significant Christian sites previously converted to state museums, such as St. Peter’s Church in Antakya, St. Nicholas’ Church near Demre, St. Paul Church near Isparta, and the House of the Virgin Mary, near Selcuk. The Ecumenical Patriarchate again cancelled an annual service at Sumela Monastery, near Trabzon, because of its continuing restoration. A portion of the Sumela Monastery reopened to visitors in May after renovations were completed on part of the complex, but large portions continued under renovation.

In April a court sentenced the chairperson of Alperen Ocaklari Foundation to one year in prison for inciting public hatred and animosity during a 2017 protest in front of the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul. During the incident, a group hurled rocks at the synagogue, kicked its doors, and threatened members of the Jewish community. The protest was a reaction to the placement of metal detectors by Israel in front of Al Aqsa Mosque, according to the members of the protesting group.

In June a local court in Bursa approved the application by the Protestant community in Bursa to start a foundation. At year’s end the government still had not responded to a request by the Protestant foundation to allow long-term use of a church renovated in 2018 using government funding. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Turkish Protestant congregations continued to share the building, owned by the GDF for more than 10 years.

The government continued to provide incarcerated Sunni Muslims with mesjids (small mosques) and Sunni preachers in larger prisons. Alevis and non-Muslims did not have clerics from their own faiths serving in prisons; however, clergy of other faiths were permitted to enter prisons with the permission of the public prosecutor to minister to their adherents as long as doing so was not considered a threat to a facility’s security.

For the second year in a row, the annual Mass at the historic Armenian Akdamar Church near Van in the east of the country was officiated by the then-acting Armenian patriarch. Authorities canceled annual services between 2015-2017, citing security concerns arising from clashes between the military and the PKK.

Government funding for daily and weekly newspapers published by minority communities increased from a total of TL 200,000 ($33,700) in 2018 to 250,000 TL ($42,100) during the year.

Jewish citizens again expressed concern about anti-Semitism and security threats. According to members of the community, the government continued to coordinate with them on security issues. They said the government measures were helpful and the government was responsive to requests for security.

In December the Gaziantep Synagogue, located in the southeast of the country, reopened for a Hanukkah celebration after remaining closed for 40 years due to the shrinking size of the congregation. The synagogue was used as a cultural center by Gaziantep University until reopening for special occasions following renovations by the GDF.

A then-AKP MP denounced in a social media post the red carpet premier of the film Cicero, which depicted detailed features of a concentration camp, stating “There can be no explanation” for using “one of the most tragic and calamitous crimes in the history of humanity as material for entertainment at a film gala.”

Ankara University hosted an event to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 24, in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement commemorating the victims and underlined the service of Turkish diplomats who aided Jewish victims of persecution by providing Turkish passports and identity documents to help them flee the tragedy. The deputy foreign minister for EU affairs, members of the diplomatic corps, Chief Rabbi of Turkey Ishak Haleva, other leaders of the Jewish community, and high school students took part in the event. In February the government for the fifth year in a row commemorated the nearly 800 Jewish refugees who died aboard the Struma, a ship that sank off the coast of Istanbul in 1942. The governor of Istanbul, Chief Rabbi Haleva, other members of the Jewish community, and members of the diplomatic community attended the commemoration.

In April and September President Erdogan again sent messages to the Jewish community celebrating Passover and Rosh Hashanah. The messages described Turkey as a symbol of “love and tolerance” and recognized “diversity as the most important wealth that strengthens unity and solidarity.” In December the Jewish community celebrated Hanukkah with a ceremony at Galata Tower Square in Istanbul’s Beyoglu neighborhood. President Erdogan extended his congratulations and best wishes for wellbeing and happiness to mark the beginning of the Festival of Lights. He said in a written statement, “It is of great importance for us to ensure each and every one of our citizens’ liberty to practice their faith.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In May a Muslim televangelist, Nihat Hatipoglu, converted a 13-year-old Armenian Christian boy to Islam during a live broadcast on private television channel ATV without the permission of his parents. Members of the Armenian community denounced the act as a forced conversion and violation of the Lausanne Treaty. Then-acting Armenian Apostolic patriarch Atesyan also issued a statement and personally expressed his concerns to the chairman of the Diyanet. MPs of the ruling AKP and opposition People’s Democratic Party (HDP) criticized the conversion, and Turkish Armenian HDP MP Garo Paylan filed an official complaint with the radio and television oversight body.

In October unidentified individuals wrote on the door of the home of the president of Bursa’s Pir Sultan Abdal Association, an Alevi organization, “It is your time for death.” Police launched a criminal investigation into the incident. The investigation continued through the end of the year.

Some converts to Christian Protestant groups from Islam or from Christian Orthodoxy reported social shunning within their family, among friends, and at their workplaces following their contacts’ discovery of the conversion, according to local community members.

The premier of the film Cicero in January generated controversy and condemnation when the scenery for the premier’s red carpet walk depicted features of a concentration camp, including striped uniforms draped on barbed-wire fencing and guard dogs. The local Jewish community, columnists, a then-AKP MP, and social media users denounced the display as disgraceful. The filmmakers subsequently apologized.

Some progovernment news outlets published conspiracy theories involving Jews and blamed Jews for the country’s economic difficulties and potential sanctions.

During the campaign for Istanbul mayor, altered images of opposition CHP Party candidate Ekrem Imamoglu showing him shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and meeting with a group of Orthodox Jews appeared on social media in an effort to discredit him, according to commentators. Disparaging comments and statements calling Imamoglu a “friend of Zionism” accompanied the images.

Anti-Semitic rhetoric continued in print media and on social media throughout the year. According to a Hrant Dink Foundation project on hate speech, there were 430 published instances of anti-Jewish rhetoric in the press between January and August depicting Jews as violent, conspiratorial, and a threat to the country, compared with 899 published instances during the same period in 2018. A reader’s letter published in the newspaper Yeni Akit stated Jewish residents in Istanbul trained street dogs to bite Muslims and repeated historic accusations of blood libel. Some commentators criticized the letter as ridiculous, and Mustafa Yeneroglu, an MP formerly with the ruling AKP party, denounced the content as “the language of the Nazis,” according to multiple media reports.

In January anti-Semitic comments surfaced on social media following an increase in gas and electric bills, with some users reacting by asking, “What have we done to get such a bill; did we burn Jews?” The editor-in-chief of Shalom, a Jewish community newspaper, called the comments a despicable example of racism and a reaction of sick minds. He added that such forms of anti-Semitism were increasingly common on social media and asked legal authorities to intervene.

In October social media users and media outlets shared photographs of anti-Christian and anti-Semitic posters hung at municipal bus stops in the central Anatolian town of Konya by the local branches of the Anatolian Youth Association and National Youth Foundation. The posters cited a Quranic verse that appeared to advise Muslims not to befriend Christians and Jews. The images also included a crucifix and Star of David with what appeared to be droplets of blood. Social media users from all three faiths criticized the posters as insulting to religious minorities, misrepresenting the message of the Quran, and undermining the dignity of the nation. The private advertising company leasing the billboards said the associations changed the content of the posters before printing them. It replaced the images with Turkish flags shortly after the concerns appeared on social media. The Anatolian Youth Association described the situation as a misunderstanding and said it was investigating the incident. In December the local prosecutor’s office in Konya said in a statement it would not pursue prosecution in the case because the act in question did not present “a clear and eminent threat to the public safety.”

In June at a memorial service in Istanbul for former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, the crowd chanted anti-Semitic slogans. President Erdogan attended the service.

Several Christian and Jewish places of worship experienced acts of vandalism and received threats, according to local observers and the Freedom of Belief Initiative. In January three assailants reportedly threw a “sound” grenade at the door of the Mardin Protestant Church. The suspects were detained and released after making statements to police.

In February an unidentified person or persons sprayed graffiti on the doors and walls of the Surp Hreshdagabet Armenian Church in the Balat District, Istanbul that included derogatory messages. A representative of community foundations to the GDF, Moris Levi, said in a statement that police had opened an investigation and received security camera footage of the incident. HDP MP Garo Paylan condemned the attack. According to the community, the perpetrators had not been found by year’s end.

According to media reports, in March a person attempted to vandalize the Beth Israel Synagogue in Izmir with a Molotov cocktail. The synagogue was not damaged in the incident. Police arrested and charged the individual for attempting to damage a place of worship. He stated his intention was to “protest Israel,” according to multiple media reports. Representatives of the Jewish community expressed gratitude to the İzmir Security Directorate for what they said was its swift response and sensitivity to the community’s security needs.

In January a small group of protestors demanded the status of the Hagia Sophia change from a museum to a mosque following the social media posting of a woman dancing inside the structure. Police prevented the group from entering the structure, and museum officials said they would investigate the incident. The investigation continued at year’s end.

In February hundreds of persons gathered in front of the Hagia Sophia for Friday prayers in an event organized by the Platform on Unity in Idea and Struggle, which advocates for the Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque.

Despite the law permitting teaching and spreading religious beliefs, church officials and rights groups indicated these types of activities were widely viewed with suspicion and occasionally led to societal stigmatization.

Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religious leaders again joined representatives from various municipalities in Istanbul and the minister of culture and tourism for a public interfaith iftar in May. Organized by the representative of community foundations to the GDF with the support of all religious minority communities and hosted this year by the Syriac Catholic community, the event was described by organizers as an opportunity for communities that have shared the same lands for thousands of years to share their tables as friends.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, other embassy and consulate officials, and visiting U.S. officials regularly engaged with government officials throughout the year, including at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Diyanet, and GDF. They underscored the importance of religious freedom, interfaith tolerance, and condemning hateful or discriminatory language directed at any religious groups.

U.S. officials also provided overviews of the 2018 International Religious Freedom report in private meetings with government officials. They offered to hear from government representatives specific claims of potential religious freedom issues raised by local religious communities and how best to collaborate between the governments of the two countries to protect and respect religious freedom.

U.S. government officials urged the government to implement reforms aimed at lifting restrictions on religious groups, raised the issue of property restitution and restoration, and discussed specific cases of religious discrimination.

Senior U.S. government officials continued to publicly, and privately with government officials, express their understanding of the Hagia Sophia as a site of extraordinary significance, and to support its preservation in a manner that respects its complex multireligious history. They underscored the importance of the issue with government officials and emphasized that the Hagia Sophia is a symbol of peaceful coexistence, meaningful dialogue, and respect among religions. Embassy staff continued to press for the restitution of church properties expropriated in Diyarbakir and Mardin.

The Secretary of State and other senior U.S. government officials continued to urge government officials to reopen the Greek Orthodox seminary in Halki and allow all religious communities to train clergy in the country. In May the Charge d’Affaires and the Istanbul Consul General visited Halki to demonstrate ongoing interest in the reopening of the seminary. In October staff of the consulate general in Istanbul joined representatives from 24 other missions and the foreign ministry to visit Halki with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. In April the Charge d’Affaires attended Easter services at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. George to show support for religious minorities.

In March embassy officials met with the leaders of a recently renovated Greek Orthodox Church in Antalya to learn more about the community’s concerns and aspirations for its growing congregation, and to express the U.S. government’s interest in promoting religious freedom in the country.

In September the Principal Officer of the consulate in Adana attended the annual Mass at the historic Armenian Akdamar Church near Van in the east of the country, officiated by the acting Armenian patriarch, to emphasize U.S. government support for religious minorities in the country.

In April the Istanbul Consul General traveled to the city of Edirne to visit Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Baha’i historic sites and demonstrate the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom. In May senior embassy officials hosted a Jewish community leader at the embassy to learn firsthand about the community’s views and concerns.

In January a senior embassy official attended a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Ankara University with senior host government officials and the leadership of the country’s Jewish community. Local media provided positive coverage of the event.

Senior U.S. embassy and consulate officials regularly engaged with a wide range of religious community leaders to hear and address their concerns, visit their places of worship, and promote interreligious dialogue. Officials from the embassy and consulates met with members of the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christian, Armenian Protestant, Armenian Catholic, Protestant, Alevi, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Roman Catholic, Chaldean, Church of Jesus Christ, and Baha’i Faith communities, among others, throughout the country. The embassy and consulates utilized Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to emphasize the importance of the inclusion of religious minorities, including messages under hashtags such as #DiniOzgurluk (religious freedom) on designated days that recognized and underscored the U.S. government commitment to religious freedom and human rights.

United Arab Emirates

Executive Summary

The constitution designates Islam as the official religion. It guarantees freedom of worship as long as it does not conflict with public policy or morals. It states all persons are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief. The law prohibits blasphemy, proselytizing by non-Muslims, and conversion from Islam. An antidiscrimination law includes prohibitions on religious discrimination and criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religions. Local press reported in September that a Dubai court convicted a Moroccan national of blasphemy and sentenced him to three months imprisonment followed by deportation and a fine of 500,000 dirhams ($136,000). In February Sharjah Emirate authorities charged two residents with engaging in extramarital sex, in violation of local interpretation of sharia. In March a woman initially convicted of charges related to practicing witchcraft was acquitted after appeal in the emirate of Fujairah. The General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (Awqaf) continued to provide weekly guidance for the content of sermons in Sunni mosques. Some Shia imams chose to follow Awqaf-approved guidance, while the Dubai-based Jaafari Affairs Council, charged with management of Shia affairs, issued additional instructions to Shia mosques. Christian churches and Hindu and Sikh temples serving the noncitizen population operated on land donated by the ruling families. In September the Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development (DCD) granted licenses, and thereby formal legal status, to 18 Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship, including Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches and the country’s first traditional Hindu temple. Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths otherwise reported they could worship in private without government interference but faced some restrictions on practicing their religion in public. Government-controlled internet service providers blocked access to websites critical of Islam or supportive of views the government considered religiously extremist. The government prohibited the dissemination of literature it perceived as supporting religious extremism. During the year, construction was underway on multiple houses of worship. Regulatory requirements sometimes limited the ability of religious organizations to rent space for worship and limited certain charitable activities. In February the government announced construction of the first official synagogue in Abu Dhabi, with construction slated to begin in 2020. In February Pope Francis held a public Mass in Abu Dhabi for 180,000 Catholics as part of the first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula. The government hosted conferences and meetings with religious minority leaders throughout the year to promote interfaith tolerance both domestically and internationally.

According to non-Muslim religious community representatives, there was a high degree of societal tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions, particularly for those associated with officially recognized houses of worship, although conversion from Islam was strongly discouraged. Conversion to Islam was encouraged, however. In June the Zayed House for Islamic Culture posted a video online featuring new converts to Islam and the religion’s role in promoting tolerance and forgiveness. Local newspapers published stories portraying conversions to Islam positively. In some cases, organizations reported that hotels, citing government regulatory barriers, were unwilling to rent space for non-Islamic religious purposes, such as weekly church services. Local media reported on difficulties in obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for new religious spaces, including for registered religious organizations.

The U.S. Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom spoke at a conference in Abu Dhabi on the subject of interfaith tolerance and education. He also met with local officials, including Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. In meetings with senior government counterparts, the Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, other embassy and consulate general officers, and visiting U.S. officials reviewed ways to promote respect among faith groups and freedom for minority groups to practice their religions, as well as government initiatives to foster religious tolerance and counter what it considered extremist interpretations of Islam. Embassy and consulate general officials also engaged with a broad range of minority religious groups. The embassy and consulate general in Dubai hosted interfaith events to encourage and support religious freedom and tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.8 million (midyear 2019 estimate). Approximately 11 percent of the population are citizens, of whom more than 85 percent are Sunni Muslims, according to media reports. The vast majority of the remainder are Shia Muslims, who are concentrated in the Emirates of Dubai and Sharjah.

Of the estimated 89 percent of noncitizen residents, the majority comes from South and Southeast Asia. Although no official statistics are available for what percentage of the noncitizen population is Muslim or the breakdown between Sunni and Shia Muslims, media estimates suggest less than 20 percent of the noncitizen Muslim population is Shia.

Of the total population (both citizen and noncitizen), the 2005 census, the most recent, found 76 percent of the population is Muslim, 9 percent Christian, and 15 percent from other noncitizen religious groups comprising mainly Hindus and Buddhists, and also including Parsis, Baha’is, Druze, Sikhs, and Jews. Ahmadi Muslims, Ismaili Muslims, and Dawoodi Bohra Muslims together constitute less than 5 percent of the total population and are almost entirely noncitizens. The Pew Research Center estimated that in 2010, 76.9 percent of the total population was Muslim, 12.6 percent Christian, 6.6 percent Hindu, 2 percent Buddhist, with the remaining belonging to other faith traditions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution designates Islam as the official religion. It guarantees freedom of religious worship “in accordance with established customs,” provided this “does not conflict with public policy or violate public morals.” The constitution states all citizens are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief.

The law prohibits black magic, sorcery, and incantations, which are punishable by a prison term ranging from six months to three years, and deportation for noncitizens.

The law does not directly prohibit Muslims from converting to other religions; however, the penal code defers to sharia on matters defined as crimes in Islamic doctrine, which in many interpretations prohibits apostasy.

The law provides for imprisonment of up to five years for preaching against Islam or proselytizing to Muslims. The law also prohibits “abusing” a holy shrine or ritual of any religion, insulting any religion, inciting someone to commit sin or contravene national values, labeling someone an infidel or unbeliever, and forming groups or holding meetings with the purpose of provoking religious hatred. Offenders are subject to fines up to two million dirhams ($545,000) and imprisonment generally ranges from five to 10 or more years.

The law prohibits blasphemy, defined as any act insulting God, religions, prophets, messengers, holy books, or houses of worship. Offenders are subject to imprisonment for five or more years and fines from 250,000 dirhams ($68,100) to two million dirhams ($545,000); noncitizens may be deported.

The law does not require religious organizations to register; however, the formation of a legal entity, which requires some form of registration, is necessary for operational functions such as opening a bank account or renting space. Each emirate oversees registration of non-Muslim religious organizations and the process differs by emirate, organization, and circumstance. In Dubai, religious organizations are required to obtain a license from the Community Development Authority (CDA). The government has also granted some religious organizations land in free trade zones, where they legally registered by applying for a trade license, which allows them some operational functions.

The law requires Muslims and non-Muslims to refrain from eating, drinking, and smoking in public during fasting hours during the month of Ramadan. Violations of the law are punishable by one month’s imprisonment or a fine not exceeding 2,000 dirhams ($540). The law prohibits Muslims from drinking alcohol or knowingly eating pork throughout the year.

The law prohibits churches from erecting bell towers or displaying crosses or other religious symbols on the outside of their premises, although they may place signs on their properties indicating they are churches.

Islamic studies are mandatory for all students in public schools and for Muslim students in private schools. The government does not provide instruction in any religion other than Islam in public schools. In private schools, non-Muslim students are not required to attend Islamic study classes. All students, however, are required to take national social studies classes, which include some teaching on Islam. The government permits Christian-affiliated schools to provide instruction tailored to the religious background of the student, for example, Islamic studies for Muslim students, Christian instruction for Christian students, and ethics or comparative religions for others.

Private schools deemed to be teaching material offensive to Islam, defamatory of any religion, or contravening the country’s ethics and beliefs face potential penalties, including closure. All private schools, regardless of religious affiliation, must register with the government. Private schools are required to have a license from the federal Ministry of Education, and their curriculum must be consistent with a plan of operation submitted to and approved by the ministry. Administrative oversight of the schools is a responsibility of each emirate’s government.

The law prohibits the distribution of religious literature the government determines is contradictory to Islam, as well as literature it deems blasphemous or offensive toward religions.

Land ownership by noncitizens is restricted to designated freehold areas. Outside of special economic zones and designated freehold areas, the law restricts majority company ownership to citizens except in certain exempted sectors. This restriction is an impediment to most minority religious communities, which consist of noncitizens, from purchasing property to build houses of worship.

The law prohibits multiple forms of discrimination, including religious, and criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religion through any form of expression. It also criminalizes the broadcasting, publication, and transmission of such material by any means, including audio/visual or print media or via the internet, and prohibits conferences or meetings the government deems promote discrimination, discord, or hatred.

According to the constitution, sharia is the principal source of legislation, although the judicial system applies two types of law, depending on the case. Sharia forms the basis for judicial decisions in most family law matters for Muslims, such as marriage and divorce, and inheritance for both Muslims and non-Muslims; however, in the case of noncitizens, the parties may petition the court to have the laws of their home country apply, rather than sharia. Sharia also applies in some criminal matters. Civil law provides the basis for decisions on all other matters. Shia Muslims in Dubai may pursue Shia family law cases through a special Shia council rather than through the regular judicial system. When sharia courts try non-Muslims for criminal offenses, judges have the discretion to impose civil or sharia penalties. In these cases, judges generally impose civil penalties. Higher courts may overturn or modify sharia penalties.

The Fatwa Council, headed by President of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah, is tasked with presenting a clear image of Islam, including issuing general fatwas and licensing individuals to issue fatwas, train muftis, and conduct research, in coordination with the Awqaf.

Under the law, citizen and noncitizen Muslim men may marry non-Muslim women who are “people of the book” (Christian or Jewish). Muslim women may not marry non-Muslim men. Non-Muslim men and Muslim women who marry are subject to arrest, trial, and imprisonment on grounds of engaging in extramarital sex, which carries a minimum sentence of one year in prison, because the marriage is considered invalid; any extramarital sex between persons of any religion is subject to the same penalties.

In the event of a divorce between a Muslim father and non-Muslim mother, sharia usually applies. Strict interpretation of sharia – which often favors the father – does not apply to child custody cases and courts have applied the “the best interests of the child” standard since 2010. According to sharia, a divorced woman may lose custody of her children to their father once daughters reach 13 years of age and sons 11 years of age. Women may file for continued custody until a daughter marries or a son finishes his education. The father, deemed the guardian, provides for the child financially, while the mother, the custodian, provides day-to-day care of the child. Non-Muslim wives of citizens are ineligible for naturalization. There is no automatic spousal inheritance provision for wives under the law if the husband is Muslim and the wife is non-Muslim. Such wives may not inherit their husband’s property unless named as a beneficiary in their husband’s will.

Abu Dhabi’s judicial department permits Christian leaders to legally mediate divorces for Christians and agnostics if the bride and groom are both residents of the emirate. The government permits church officials to officiate at weddings for non-Muslims, but the couple must also obtain the marriage certificate from the Abu Dhabi Justice Department. In both cases of marriage and divorce, the church official must be registered with the Ministry of Justice as officially recognized to perform these acts.

Noncitizens may register wills in the emirate in which they live. In the absence of a will filed with the government, the assets of foreigners who die are subject to sharia. Non-Muslims are able to register their wills with the Abu Dhabi judicial system as a way to safeguard their assets and preserve their children’s inheritance rights. In Dubai, foreigners may file wills at the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) Court Wills and Probate Registry. The DIFC Wills Service Center allows non-Muslim business owners and shareholders to designate an heir. Dubai wills not filed in the DIFC Court are subject to sharia. In July the DIFC announced non-Muslim residents could register wills covering assets across the country and abroad. Previously, the DIFC only accepted wills with assets in Dubai and Ras al-Khaimah. There are courts for Personal Status and for Inheritance for non-Muslims in the Abu Dhabi Court of First Instance.

The law prohibits activities the government deems supportive of political or extremist interpretations of Islam. These include the use of the internet or any other electronic means to promote views the government believes insult religions, promote sectarianism, damage national unity or the reputation of the state, or harm public order and public morals. Punishments include imprisonment and fines from 500,000 dirhams ($136,000) to one million dirhams ($272,000). Electronic violations of the law are subject to a maximum fine of four million dirhams ($1.1 million). The law prohibits membership in groups the government designates as terrorist organizations, with penalties up to life imprisonment and capital punishment.

Under the law, local authorities concerned with mosque affairs are responsible for naming mosques, providing and supervising the needs of mosques and prayer spaces, determining the timing of the second call to prayer, organizing religious lectures, and preparing sermons. The law also defines acts prohibited in mosques, prayer spaces, and Eid Musallas (open prayer spaces outside of mosques or prayer halls smaller than mosques) without a license, such as giving lectures or sermons, holding Quran memorization circles, fundraising, and distributing written and visual material. The law further stipulates citizen applicants must be given first consideration for vacant positions at mosques. The law prohibits those working in mosques from belonging to any illegal group or from participating in any political or organizational activities.

The law restricts charitable fundraising activities, including by religious organizations, by prohibiting the collection of donations or advertising fundraising campaigns without prior approval from authorities. As of March, violations of the law are subject to a fine of no less than 50,000 dirhams ($13,600). Under a 2012 cybercrimes law, the use of any information technology to promote the collection of donations without a license is subject to a fine between 200,000 dirhams ($54,500) and 500,000 dirhams ($136,000).

Individuals who donate to unregistered charities and fundraising groups may be punished with a three-year prison term or a fine between 250,000 dirhams ($68,100) and 500,000 dirhams ($136,000).

The Dubai CDA is the official body mandated to oversee all civil institutions and nonprofits in the emirate, including non-Muslim religious groups. The CDA issues operating licenses and permits for events and monitors fundraising activities. The law also states that civil institutions may only collect donations or launch fundraising campaigns after obtaining the CDA’s written approval. Fines for noncompliance range from 500 dirhams ($140) to 100,000 dirhams ($27,200).

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

According to media reports, in September the Dubai Criminal Court sentenced a Moroccan national to three months imprisonment, deportation upon completion of his prison sentence, and a fine of 500,000 dirhams ($136,000) on blasphemy charges for allegedly insulting God in an argument with his employer.

Media reported Dubai courts sentenced a Moroccan woman in August to three months imprisonment and deportation for charges that included blasphemy, for insulting religion in text messages sent to a man with whom she had been romantically involved.

According to media reports, in February, Sharjah officials charged two residents with engaging in extramarital sex, in violation of local interpretation of sharia.

Police and courts continued to enforce laws prohibiting sorcery. Customs authorities in Dubai and the northern emirates reported seizing shipments containing materials they said were intended for use in magic and sorcery. In March a woman was acquitted after appealing charges related to practicing witchcraft. The Fujairah Court of First Instance initially convicted her and ordered her to pay a fine of 10,000 dirhams ($2,700).

Following a December 31, 2018 court ruling upholding his earlier conviction, the government continued to imprison Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist arrested in 2017. Although specifics of the charges against Mansoor remained unknown, authorities stated that, among other violations of the law, Mansoor promoted “a sectarian- and hate-filled agenda.”

There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, designated by the government as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group. Since 2011, the government also has restricted the activities of organizations and individuals allegedly associated with al-Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate. In August the country’s president pardoned political activist Osama al-Najjar and two other detainees accused of having ties to al-Islah. Their release was accompanied by a video in which the three detainees renounced their membership and condemned the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

Within prisons, authorities continued to require Muslims to attend weekly Islamic services. In Abu Dhabi, some Christian clergy reported difficulties visiting Christian prisoners and raised concerns about lack of worship space for incarcerated Christians. They said that when they were granted prison access, they were permitted to take Bibles to the prisoners.

The country’s two primary internet service providers, both majority-owned by the government, continued to block certain web sites critical of Islam or supportive of religious views the government considered extremist, including Islamic sites. The service providers continued to block other sites on religion-related topics, including some with information on Judaism, Christianity, atheism, and testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity.

In an April statement during the Fatwa Council’s second annual conference, the council declared the importance of regulating fatwas so that they could “consecrate values of tolerance and coexistence.”

The Awqaf continued to vet and appoint Sunni imams, except in Dubai, based on their gender, educational background, and knowledge of Islam, along with security checks. According to the Awqaf, the government continued to fund Sunni mosques, with the exception of those considered private, and retained all Sunni imams as government employees.

The Awqaf continued to oversee the administration of Sunni mosques, except in Dubai, where they were administered by the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department (IACAD). On its website, the Awqaf stated its goals included offering “religious guidance in the UAE to instill the principle of moderation in Islam.” It continued to distribute weekly guidance to Sunni imams regarding subject matter, themes, and content of Friday sermons; published a Friday sermon script every week; and posted the guidance on its website. Leading up to Ramadan, the Awqaf launched training workshops to instruct imams on sermon delivery and how to communicate values of moderation and tolerance.

The Awqaf applied a three-tier system in which junior imams followed the Awqaf script for Friday sermons closely; midlevel imams prepared sermons according to the topic or subject matter selected by Awqaf authorities; and senior imams had the flexibility to choose their own subject and content for their Friday sermons. Some Shia sheikhs (religious leaders) chose to use Awqaf-approved weekly addresses, while others wrote their own sermons. Friday sermons were translated into English and Urdu on the Awqaf’s website and mobile application.

Dubai’s IACAD controlled the appointment of Sunni clergy and their conduct during worship in Dubai mosques. All of the imams in Dubai’s more than 2,000 Sunni mosques were government employees and included both citizens and noncitizens. Qualification requirements were more stringent for expatriate imams than for local imams and starting salaries much lower.

The Jaafari Affairs Council, located in Dubai and appointed by the Dubai ruler, managed Shia affairs for the entire country, including overseeing mosques and community activities, managing financial affairs, and hiring imams. The council complied with the weekly guidance from IACAD and issued additional instructions on sermons to Shia mosques.

The government did not appoint imams for Shia mosques. Shia adherents worshiped in and maintained their own mosques. The government considered all Shia mosques to be private; however, they were eligible to receive some funds from the government upon request.

The Awqaf operated official toll-free call centers and a text messaging service for fatwas in Arabic, English, and Urdu. Fatwa categories included belief and worship, business transactions, family issues, women’s issues, and other Islamic legal issues. Callers explained their question directly to an official mufti, who then issued a fatwa. Both female (muftiya) and male (mufti) religious scholars worked the telephones at the fatwa hotline.

The government permitted Shia Muslims to observe Ashura in private, but not in public. There were no public processions in Dubai or the northern emirates, where the majority of the country’s Shia population resides.

Representatives of non-Islamic faiths said registration procedures and requirements for minority religious groups remained unclear in all emirates. In September the Department of Community Development (DCD) in Abu Dhabi granted licenses, and thereby formal legal status, to 18 Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship, including Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches and the country’s first traditional Hindu temple. Prior to receiving licenses, the 18 houses of worship operated on informal approval from local authorities. According to the DCD – the regulator of places of worship in Abu Dhabi emirate – the licensing ensured the places of worship had a channel of communication through which to request support on administrative and operational issues affecting religious communities. These changes did not apply to religious groups in the other emirates.

The government did not require non-Muslim religious groups to register, but according to some observers, the lack of a clear legal designation continued to result in an ambiguous legal status for many groups and created difficulties in carrying out certain administrative functions, including banking and signing leases. For example, the government continued to require religious groups to register as a precondition for establishing formal places of worship, such as temples, mosques, or churches, or for holding religious services in rented spaces such as hotels or convention centers. Since the September licensing of 18 houses of worship by DCD, community sources reported that unregistered religious organizations faced challenges in renting spaces at hotels in some circumstances. The government permitted groups that chose not to register to carry out religious functions in private homes, as long as this activity did not disturb neighbors through excessive noise or vehicle congestion.

The government required all conference organizers, including religious groups, to register conferences and events, including disclosing speaker topics.

In Dubai, there were continued reports of delays in obtaining permits from the CDA to worship in spaces outside of government-designated religious compounds. In 2018, the CDA was tasked with implementing an oversight structure for civil institutions and nonprofits and with regulating non-Muslim faith communities in the emirate. Despite changes in personnel since 2018, when the CDA imposed significant restrictions on non-Muslim groups practicing in hotels, there were continued reports of such restrictions as well as confusion and uncertainty regarding CDA policies for obtaining licenses and event permits, which were not published by the CDA. There were also reports of last-minute event cancellations affecting religious groups.

Immigration authorities continued to ask foreigners applying for residence permits to declare their religious affiliation on applications. School applications also continued to ask for family religious affiliation. Applicants were required to list a religious affiliation, creating potential legal issues for atheists and agnostics. According to Ministry of Interior officials, the government collected this information for demographic statistical analysis only.

Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths, including Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Judaism, said they generally could worship and practice without government interference within designated compounds or buildings, or in private facilities or homes. While the government did not generally allow non-Muslims to worship, preach, or conduct prayers in public, there were reports of government-sanctioned exceptions. In February Pope Francis held a public Mass in Abu Dhabi for 180,000 Catholics as part of the first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula. In April 5,000 worshipers attended a stone-laying ceremony for a Hindu temple.

News reports during the year quoted religious leaders, including from Catholic, Anglican, Hindu, Sikh, and other religious communities, expressing appreciation for government support for their communities and the relative freedom in which their communities could worship. Following the government licensing of 18 Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship, Pujya Brahmavihari Swami, the head priest of the UAE’s first Hindu temple, described the event in which the licenses were publicly presented as “a great signal to the world that the way forward for humanity is global inclusiveness where we not only respect each other’s beliefs but also accept their existence.”

The government continued to provide land for non-Muslim cemeteries. Cremation facilities and associated cemeteries were available for the large Hindu community. Non-Muslim groups said the capacity of crematoriums and cemeteries was sufficient to meet demand. The government required residents and nonresidents to obtain a permit to use cremation facilities, and authorities routinely granted such permits. The government allowed individuals from all religious groups except Islam to use the facilities.

In June the Abu Dhabi International Airport opened a new multifaith prayer room for use by the general public.

Some religious groups, particularly Christians and Hindus, advertised religious functions in the press or online, including holiday celebrations, memorial services, religious conventions, and choral concerts, without government objection. The government also allowed businesses to advertise, sell merchandise, and host events for non-Islamic religious holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali. The government allowed local media to report on non-Islamic religious holiday celebrations, including service times and related community safety reminders.

Despite legal prohibitions on eating during daylight hours in Ramadan, in Dubai and several northern emirates, non-Muslims were exempt from these laws in hotels and most malls; non-Muslims could eat at some stand-alone restaurants and most hotels in Abu Dhabi as well. In Dubai and several northern emirates, most licensed restaurants were permitted to offer alcohol during Ramadan. Although private eating establishments historically used curtains or partitions to conceal customers who ate during Ramadan daytime hours, in May, a few days prior to the conclusion of Ramadan, Abu Dhabi authorities ordered the partitions be taken down, thereby allowing restaurants and cafes to serve food openly during Ramadan. Due to confusion in the publication of the Abu Dhabi municipality’s instruction, compliance with the order to remove partitions was not universal.

The government did not always enforce the prohibition against bell towers and crosses on churches, and some churches in Abu Dhabi and Dubai displayed crosses on their buildings or had ornamental bell towers; none of them used the towers to ring or chime bells.

Customs authorities continued to review the content of imported religious materials and occasionally confiscated some of them, such as books. Additionally, customs authorities occasionally denied or delayed entry to passengers carrying items deemed intended for sorcery, black magic, or witchcraft. Specific items airport inspectors reportedly confiscated included amulets, animal bones, spells, knives, and containers of blood.

Officials from the Awqaf’s Department of Research and Censorship reviewed religious materials, such as books and DVDs published at home and abroad. The department’s Religious Publications Monitoring Section continued to limit the publication and distribution of religious literature to texts it considered consistent with moderate interpretations of Islam, and placed restrictions on non-Islamic religious publications, such as material that could be considered proselytizing or promoting another religion other than Islam. The section issued permits to print the Quran and reviewed literature on Quranic interpretation. The government continued to prohibit the publication and distribution of literature it believed promoted extremist Islam and overtly political Islam. The Religious Publications Monitoring Section inspected mosques to ensure prohibited publications were not present.

In a June statement, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said the government has “taken significant, constructive steps to advance the theological basis for Muslim coexistence with adherents of other religions, including but not limited to Christians and Jews.” In this regard, the ADL cited the government’s training of thousands of Afghan imams on interreligious coexistence and the appointment of the world’s first cabinet-level minister of tolerance.

During Ramadan, government-owned companies sponsored programs featuring speakers that the ADL had cited for past anti-Semitic comments. A government-owned radio station broadcast a program featuring Saleh Al-Maghemsy, a Saudi Sunni Islamic scholar, and the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority hosted a presentation by Omar Abdel Kafi, an Egyptian writer active on the international lecture and television circuit. In a letter to the director general of the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Simon Wiesenthal Center stated the November UNESCO-sponsored Sharjah International Book Fair featured a number of anti-Semitic titles, including “Mein Kampf” and “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

The government continued to grant permission to build houses of worship on a case-by-case basis. Minority religious groups said, however, the construction of new houses of worship did not keep up with demand from the country’s large noncitizen population. Many existing churches continued to face overcrowding and many congregations lacked their own space. Because of the limited capacity of official houses of worship, dozens of religious organizations and different groups shared worship space. In Dubai, overcrowding of the emirate’s two church compounds was especially pronounced, and routinely led to congestion and traffic. Media reports highlighted that holiday services often attracted tens of thousands of worshippers to the compounds. Some smaller congregations met in private locations or shared space with other churches to which rulers had given land. Noncitizen groups with land grants did not pay rent on the property. Several emirates also continued to provide free utilities for religious buildings.

Noncitizens, who generally make up the entire membership of minority religious groups, relied on grants and permission from local rulers to build houses of worship. For these groups, land titles remained in the respective ruler’s name. The country’s 42 Christian churches were all built on land donated by the ruling families of the emirates in which they were located, including houses of worship for Catholics, Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Anglicans, and other denominations. Ajman and Umm Al Quwain remained the only emirates without dedicated land for Christian churches, although congregations gathered in other spaces, such as hotels.

There were two Hindu temples and one Sikh temple in Dubai. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed allocated land in Al-Wathba, Abu Dhabi, for the construction of a privately funded Hindu temple, scheduled to be completed by 2022. There were no Buddhist temples; some Buddhist groups met in private facilities. There were no synagogues for the expatriate resident Jewish population, but regular communal worship took place on the Sabbath and holidays in a private Dubai villa that was publicly acknowledged as a worship space in a 2018 Bloomberg article. In May at an event cohosted with the UAE Embassy in Washington, the ADL announced the country’s expatriate Jewish community had selected its first chief rabbi. In February the government announced construction of the first official synagogue in the country, in Abu Dhabi, with construction scheduled to begin in 2020 as part of the larger Abrahamic Family House – a project slated to bring together a mosque, church, and synagogue to represent the three Abrahamic faiths. Construction was halfway complete on a new Anglican church in Abu Dhabi; the projected completion date was not clear at year’s end.

Although the government permitted non-Muslim groups to raise money from their congregations and from abroad, some unlicensed noncitizen religious groups were unable to open bank accounts because of the lack of a clear legal category to assign the organization. Several religious minority leaders reported this ambiguity created practical barriers to renting space, paying salaries, collecting funds, and purchasing insurance, and made it difficult to maintain financial controls and accountability.

Marriages between non-Muslim men and Muslim women are not recognized under the law and are thus considered invalid. In April the government issued its first birth certificate for an interfaith baby, in this case born to a Muslim mother and a Hindu father. The request, initially rejected by authorities, was deemed an exception.

In February the government hosted the Muslim Council of Elders’ Global Conference on Human Fraternity, which brought together Pope Francis, Grand Imam of al Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyib, and religious leaders from across the region to discuss interfaith cooperation and dialogue. During the conference, Pope Francis and Grand Imam al-Tayyib signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together– a declaration of reconciliation, cooperation, tolerance, and fraternity among believers and non-believers. In August the government formed a multifaith committee tasked with implementing the document. In a subsequent statement to the UN Human Rights Council, the NGO International Organization for the Least Developed Countries declared the government has “been able to offer a unique model of tolerance and dialogue between religions, cultures, and civilizations based on mutual respect. Consequently, tolerance has become an integral part of the structure of the UAE’s society and has been characterized by the establishment of a culture of human coexistence.”

In April the government hosted scholars and religious leaders as part of the International Tolerance Convention hosted by Dubai’s Al Manar Center to discuss fostering peace and curbing extremism related to religion.

In January the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation condemned the terrorist attack on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka and stated the country stood against violence, extremism, and religious discrimination.

In March Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, the ruler of Fujairah, received Bishop Mor Osthatheos Issac, Patriarchal Vicar of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church in India, and spoke about the importance of tolerance and respect for other cultures.

Some Muslim and non-Muslim groups reported their ability to engage in nonreligious charitable activities, such as providing meals or social services, was limited because of government restrictions. For example, the government required groups to obtain permission prior to any fundraising activities. Religious groups reported official permission was required for any activities held outside their place of worship, including charitable activities, and this permission was sometimes difficult to obtain.

The Dubai government’s Al Manar Islamic Center hosted an interfaith iftar, and invited attendees to share their thoughts on the themes of tolerance and happiness.

Prominent government figures routinely acknowledged minority religious holidays and promoted messages of tolerance through various print and media platforms. In October UAE Vice President, Prime Minister, and Ruler of Dubai Mohammed bin Rashid wished UAE’s Hindu community a happy Diwali in a social media message that was amplified in the local press.

In November the government conferred the “UAE Pioneer” award on two Christian expatriates, an Indian businessman, Saji Cheriyan, and Anglican clergyman Reverend Canon Andrew Thompson, chaplain of St. Andrew’s Church in Abu Dhabi, for their work in promoting interreligious tolerance in the country.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to non-Muslim groups, there continued to be societal pressure discouraging conversion from Islam and encouraging conversion to Islam. In June the Zayed House for Islamic Culture posted a video online featuring new converts to Islam and the religion’s role in promoting tolerance and forgiveness. Local newspapers published stories portraying conversions to Islam positively. For example, local media reported that nine prisoners converted to Islam in a public ceremony at a Sharjah police station after the local Department of Islamic Affairs organized proselytizing sessions at the prison. By contrast, observers reported conversion from Islam was highly discouraged through strong cultural and social pressure, particularly from family members.

Holiday foods, decorations, posters, and books continued to be widely available during major Christian and Hindu holidays, and Christmas trees and elaborate decorations remained prominent features at malls, hotels, and major shopping centers. The news media continued to print reports of religious holiday celebrations, including activities such as Christmas celebrations and Hindu festivals such as Diwali.

Religious literature, primarily related to Islam, was available in stores; however, bookstores generally did not carry the core religious works of other faiths, such as the Bible or Hindu sacred texts.

Radio and television stations frequently broadcast Islamic programming, including sermons and lectures; they did not feature similar content for other religious groups.

In some cases, organizations reported hotels, citing government regulatory barriers, were unwilling to rent space for non-Islamic religious purposes, such as weekly church services. Local media reported difficulties in obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for new religious spaces, including for registered religious organizations.

There were continued reports of users posting anti-Semitic remarks on some social media sites. In March Twitter users circulated an anti-Semitic message alleging Jewish control of media outlets in the United States.

During Ramadan, local media widely covered interfaith iftars hosted by minority faith communities, including at St. Paul’s Church in Abu Dhabi, which hosted an iftar and Maghrib prayer for 500, mostly Muslim, blue-collar workers, and Dubai’s Sikh temple, which hosted nightly interfaith iftars.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In February as a follow-up to the 2018 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the U.S. Department of State and the Ministry of Tolerance (MOT) cochaired the first regional conference to advance religious freedom, entitled “Interfaith Tolerance Education to Combat Extremism.” In his keynote speech, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom spoke about promoting education in the context of religious freedom and interfaith tolerance as a means of countering extremist ideology. The Special Advisor for Religious Minorities moderated a panel on how to set standards for textbooks and curricula that promote tolerance and interfaith understanding.

The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, Consul General, and other Department of State, embassy, and consulate general officers met with representatives of the MOT, Abu Dhabi’s DCD, and Dubai’s CDA during the year. In addition to the implementation of new laws, licensing procedures, and regulatory practices, officers discussed international, bilateral, and governmental efforts to support religious diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance, as well as government initiatives to promote what the government believed were moderate interpretations of Islam. Embassy representatives also engaged with government-supported organizations, such as the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, whose official purpose was to promote tolerance within and across religions.

Embassy and consulate general officers regularly met with representatives of minority religious groups to learn more about issues affecting their communities as part of continuing efforts to monitor their abilities to associate and worship. The embassy and consulate general hosted events that brought together leaders from diverse religious communities, such as the Hindu, Sikh, Christian, and Shia communities, to facilitate the sharing of their experiences, encourage interfaith contact building and dialogue, and demonstrate U.S. support for tolerance and religious freedom. During one of the events, religious leaders developed the idea for the book Celebrating Tolerance: Religious Diversity in the United Arab Emirates, a text edited by Reverend Thompson and published in February, which celebrates and charts the experiences and coexistence of different religious faiths in the country. In May the embassy partnered with the Emirates Red Crescent to host community iftars as part of its Ramadan outreach activities. Remarks by both U.S. and local officials throughout the year praised mutual efforts to understand different religions and cultures.

International Religious Freedom Reports
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